Tag Archives: make yourself small

Good and Bad

I’m in the middle of a conversation with a friend, who is a writer, about “good” and “bad.” Good and bad what, you ask? Good and bad writing. Good and bad singing. Good and bad cooking.

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The subject caught my attention because it evokes strong feelings, but I’ve been struggling for several days now to begin exploring it in writing with any kind of coherence. It seems ridiculously complicated, which is interesting and makes me even more determined to tackle it.

Sometimes the only thing I can do is start peeling the onion and see what happens, so here goes.

“Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptors. According to Oxford Online Dictionary, good is variously defined as “to be desired or approved of,” and “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad is “of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”

It seems to me “good” and “bad” are like “success.” Either we retain our power and define them for ourselves, in spite of external pressure, expectations, criticism or judgment, or we allow others to tell us what “good” and “bad” are. In the case of creative expression, like writing, singing and cooking, it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible to please anyone.

Is that a goal of an artist, to please others? Certainly, up to a point. If I can’t interest an agent in my writing, it’s unlikely I’ll be published. If my writing is not deemed marketable, no agent will take me on.

Is marketable the same as “good?” Is popular the same as “good?”

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Emphatically, no. I’ve read bestsellers that I thought were trash. I’m absolutely certain great writing exists that will never be discovered by the world. Some of my favorite authors are heavily criticized as being poor writers.

It seems to me “good” and “bad” boil down to opinion or preference. It might be an educated opinion, a well-respected opinion, or just a I-know-nothing-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like opinion, but an opinion, even a majority opinion, is not a universal law.

Creative artists work from a mix of skills and inspiration. Some artists have the resources and access to become formally trained in the use of writing skills, musical skills or culinary skills, especially if they recognize their interest and/or aptitude for a particular artistic expression early in their lives.

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Many others, including myself, may lack the resources, access or interest in such formal education and training, or may come to their art later in life. These artists are frequently autodidacts (self-taught people) who simply practice their art, whatever it is, because they must. They may or may not be as refined and elegant as those who obtain years of education and training, but they feel a passion or obsession for artistic expression that won’t be denied.

This mix of skill and inspiration is part of what makes the whole issue of “good” and “bad” so complicated. Skill is the ability to do something well. The definition implies that someone gets to decide what doing well means. Who decides that? Am I in charge of that, as the reader, concert-goer or diner, or are the writer, singer and chef the ones who define their artistic expression as well done?

As we create art, what are we focused on? Do we want to earn a living? Are we focused on competition—do we want to be number one? Are we determined to be famous? Rich? Successful? Influential? Professional? Validated? Perhaps, on the other hand, we have no expectation of living by our art, but artistic expression is a private joy, a sacred healing, an exercise in authenticity that keeps us rooted and grounded. Art is our prayer, our act of gratitude and hope, an expression of love for those around us, our love letter to life.

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As we consume art (read, listen, eat), what are we focused on? Perhaps we are collectors who are intent on investment and monetary value. Perhaps we love art because it inspires us; opens our hearts, minds and imaginations; or helps us manage our feelings. Maybe we’re avid readers, lovers of music, or lovers of fine cuisine. We may think of ourselves as “professional” or “successful” artists and thus feel qualified to judge and compare the work of others.

Calling a piece of writing, a song or a meal “good” or “bad” strictly in terms of a demonstration of skill, however, leaves out the heart and soul of creativity. Passion, inspiration and obsession cannot be taught. We might enjoy and admire the skill underpinning a technically perfect book or song or meal, but we’re not robots. Compelling art is not made from skill alone.

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Art, at its best, breaks us open. It haunts us. It companions us. It provokes, challenges, explores, dares, admits, stuns, shocks, amuses, comforts, excites and enlarges us. “Good” and “bad” are far too unsophisticated and limited to describe the central power of creative expression. The skill of the artist might add to that power, but skill without the animating spirit of passion is merely a well-learned series of maneuvers.

What is art worth? What is the value of joy, of authenticity, of artistic expression that reflects a piece of our soul? Art, for me, is about an expression of human experience, inherently valuable, even sacred, in its truth and vulnerability. I’m not qualified to judge another’s expression of experience. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I wouldn’t dare.

In the end, I can only circle back around to my own power, my own intentions and integrity, and my own limitations. I’m not a formally trained writer. As a creator, I’m compelled to create. I know it’s part of what I’m here to do. It’s humbling and gratifying when others find value in my work, but even when I have no indication of that, I value it.

Writing provides me with a vehicle for managing feelings, deep healing, a bridge for connection, and an irresistible and fascinating personal challenge. How can I increase my skill? What can I learn? How can I become a better writer with every blog post and every page of my manuscript? How can I increase my confidence, courage and authenticity through writing? What’s the best I can contribute?

I don’t frame my creative work as “good” or “bad.” I do think about how to make it better. To that end, I gladly solicit and receive feedback from others, and several people in my life have made huge contributions to my skill, but at the end of the day I consider my own opinion of its value first, and I take neither praise nor criticism personally.

To create art is to be fully present. A piece of art is an invitation to be intimate with the artist and ourselves, an invitation to increase our empathy, respect and compassion, to reach out and clasp the experience of another human being.

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I’ve written before about the cultural pressure to make ourselves small in a myriad of ways. How many natural artists (every child) have been criticized, shamed, derided or otherwise amputated from their artistic expression, particularly if it’s in any way sensual? How many people walk around with soul hunger to create poetry; to dance, to make music and sing songs; to be artists, but deny themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough? How many people have made a creative offering or expression and been rejected, mocked or dismissed?

I believe if we want a better, healthier culture, those who want to play with words must play with words, those who want to play with paint must play with paint, every shower must have a singer, every piece of music a dancer, and every instrument an explorer.

Skill matters, depending on the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. I suppose we can describe our perceptions of skills as “good” or “bad,” although I think we could come up with less subjective standards of measurement and recognize skill level as only a part of artistic expression.

Skill matters, but heart and soul matter more.

Making art. My daily crime.

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Measuring Health

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Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

I first heard that quote five years ago. It gave me comfort, because it allowed the possibility that my feeling of isolation and alienation at the time was a normal response. The problem, I find, with taking too much responsibility is that one stops excavating interpersonal challenges. Instead, we assume it’s all our fault because we know we’re broken. This attitude effectively blocks further inquiry into what the people around us are up to. If we can be taught or manipulated into believing we’re the core of the problem in social interaction, our shame and guilt give those around us a free pass to behave however they like and treat us however they wish. No matter what happens, they can count on us to blame ourselves.

A friend of mine recently pointed out a lot of social media buzz about normalizing obesity. As I am not on social media, I did some research into memes and articles about this issue, and everything I saw made me think of the Krishnamurti quote.

Here again I see sloppy language. Almost every source agrees that carrying too much weight on our frame is unhealthy. Unhealthy, as in bad for one’s health. Not ugly, stupid, lazy, lacking self-control, or a whole host of other slurs, taunts and unkind criticisms that many overweight people have endured their whole lives.

Obesity is unhealthy. The fact that we have so many people struggling with obesity in this country doesn’t change unhealthy to healthy because it’s so common. A growing population of obese people signals a profoundly unhealthy society. Normal, as in usual, typical or expected, does not imply useful, healthy, functional or positive.

Is normal a goal, or is it merely a cop-out? Is normal something we aspire to because it makes us bigger, or is it something we have to make ourselves smaller in order to fit into? Who gets to decide what is usual, typical or expected? What are the consequences of choosing not to be usual, typical or expected?

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I can answer that one. Consequences include tribal shaming, deplatforming, silencing and other violent, destructive and coercive responses.

Normal is one of those words that we define ourselves. Normal describes something that’s not aberrant or abnormal. Abnormal is the absence of normal. That distinction can be useful, but in a limited way. Conflating normality with Good and abnormality or different with Bad (or vice versa) is mindless, black-and-white groupthink, the kind of ideology that drives genocide, religious persecution and racism.

Our culture and context help us define normal, but if our society is profoundly sick, to be well-adjusted and “normal” within it is to be profoundly sick.

This is particularly true when I look at money. I’m noticing an ever-widening gap between money and value in my own life and in the lives around me. Until recently, I thought of all resource as money, and a life without some magical amount of money that I never defined and could never access would be a safe, successful life.

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But money is only one kind of resource, and for me it’s the weakest kind. This thinking is definitely not normal by our cultural standards, but I believe it’s becoming more common. Minimalism is a growing trend, and those of us who explore and practice it are very clear about the relative value of money, time, contribution, experience, relationships, creativity, relaxation and joy. If earning money burns up all our other resources, we can’t replace them. Money won’t buy them back for us. A tree, an afternoon in the sun, a lap full of a child, the arms of a friend, the ability to lend someone a helping hand, are all beyond the power of money.

I don’t say that money is bad or useless. I am dismayed, however, at what a God we’ve made out of it in this culture. During my lifetime the middle class has disappeared and the chasm between those very few who have significant financial resource and the billions of us who don’t seems likely to tear the planet apart.

A lot of sad people out there think money is power. It’s not. Our power is in our intelligence, our hearts, and our souls, not in our bank accounts. We have to make ourselves increasingly small and, ironically, impoverished, in order to adjust well to our deteriorating and unsustainable capitalist consumer culture.

In this house, we’re frequently in need of money to pay bills, buy groceries, keep up with car costs, buy a new pair of swim goggles, and buy a new fan for the furnace (our old one is beginning to sound like an airplane falling out of the sky when it kicks on). Most of the time, we don’t have money when we want it, but we manage to have what we need when it’s essential.

I used to feel terrified, ashamed, and like a failure because of my lack of financial resource. My relationship with money ruled my life. My hunger for more was never satisfied. When I had more I caught up with all my expenses and then I was broke again. It was a game I could never win.

I see now it’s a game no one ever wins, yet we all go on compulsively playing it, chasing the lie that enough money will provide us with love, success, healing, healthy relationships, confidence, power, and a sense of purpose and meaning. We’re so busy playing the game we have no time to recognize or welcome into our lives the things that do have the power to give us what we want.

Ultimately, accumulating money for its own sake is an expression of impotence. What’s more sterile and pointless than a lot of digits sitting in an account? The tool of money is useless unless we put it to work. If (when) the economy crashes, a piece of paper with our account information on it will be of less use than toilet paper.

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What will matter is our ability to form loving, compassionate connections with others and our willingness to collaborate sustainably with Planet Earth. Our ability to both teach and learn will be important. Our skills and integrity will be important. Our laughter and creativity will be essential. If we can translate whatever financial resource we have into these things, we’ve made good use of our money. We’ve invested in sustainability and resilience, real resource for real life.

Frequent readers know how much I enjoy playing with frames. If we feel rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and crazy, perhaps the problem is not us at all. Perhaps the problem is that we’re trying to fit into a profoundly sick society, and the fact that we can’t means we’re retaining some measure of health, even in the face of tremendous social pressure.

Those rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and I-feel-crazy ones are the people I’m writing for. Those are my people. Their courage, compassion and generosity are the wind beneath my wings. Our shared truths, tears, scars, love and broken places shape a womb where a healthier life for all can be nurtured.

Money has nothing to do with it.

My daily crime.

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The Breakdown Lane

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I’ve been sitting in the breakdown lane this weekend, watching traffic pass me by, (all their cars work!) and wondering why my car, which has been just fine, has suddenly stopped functioning.

We’ve probably all done this at least once, literally speaking. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all done it many times. We go along in our small world, and as far as we know everything is status quo and just what we expect, and then, suddenly, it isn’t. Things go off the rails and all we can think is WTF?

Sometimes I’m the one who has suddenly gone off the rails. Except, looking back, I realize it wasn’t sudden at all. Sometimes the breakdown was years in the making, but I wasn’t present enough with myself and my feelings to notice the gradual fraying and come up with a plan. Grimly, I hung on, hoping, waiting, hurting myself, arguing with what was, denying my experience, trying harder, drowning in shame, crippled by fear, until I absolutely could not hang on any longer and my last fingernail tore out.

Then I let go, after it was far too late to problem solve or help myself or anyone else involved.

I still regret that I did not have the support or resources to make different choices. I hurt myself, and I hurt others. I take responsibility for my behavior and clean up what I can, but some things just can’t be fixed—and perhaps shouldn’t be in any case.

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I think a lot about these sudden moments where things fall apart, either within us or between us. The breakdown lane is like a time out, an enforced pause. In a moment or two, the whole aspect of the day, the future, and my plans for them have changed. I realize I’m not in control. All I have is an unpleasant snarl of disappointed expectations, thwarted intentions, frustration, anger and a need to blame someone or something, including myself.

A broken car or piece of equipment is one thing. An interpersonal breakdown is another.

Few things are more painful than feeling unloved, unwanted or rejected by someone we care about. Hell, it’s painful when we feel those things from someone we don’t care about. Imagine being an immigrant in this country right now.

I have felt unloved, unwanted and rejected. I’ve also had loved ones tell me they feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by me. As I know that’s not how I feel about them, I question my certainty that others feel that way about me. If they’re misinterpreting my actions, words and choices, perhaps I’m doing the same thing.

Our feelings are real. The stories we make up about them may not be. In other words, I might feel rejected when the person I’m interacting with has no intention of sending that message. The way I express love and affection may be so different from someone else’s idea of how to express it that it’s lost in translation.

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That doesn’t mean it’s not present.

I focus a great deal on language in this blog. I do that because words matter. They have layers of meaning. It seems to me that nearly every interpersonal breakdown can be traced to a misunderstanding over a definition of terms. Getting at the bottom-line meaning of a word is as easy as looking it up:

Friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” (Oxford online dictionary)

Pretty simple, right? We all know what it means to be a friend and have a friend.

Except that we don’t. We might agree on that basic definition, but I suspect we each assign a whole world of additional personal meaning to the word friend, and that world contains longings, memories, hopes and fears, expectations, deep needs, beliefs, and old scars and wounds.

I’ve been thinking about that. When I talk about, think about and participate in friendship, what does that mean to me? What is a friend, besides someone I know and with whom I have a bond of mutual affection?

It’s a great question. I wish I could ask everyone I know. I won’t, because for some reason this kind of question seems to make most people uncomfortable, but feel free to volunteer an answer!

At this point in my life, I’m not interested in constructing relationships out of expectations and an attachment to outcome. I’ve always operated in a framework of both of those in my relationships, and it’s never worked. In the last four years I’ve taken a clear, cold look at my previously unconscious expectations of self and others and the myriad ways in which I’ve sabotaged myself and others with attachment to certain agendas and outcomes.

What I do instead (and a joyous, fascinating, loving process it is) is observe with curiosity and interest as relationships form and change. Viewed from this perspective, it’s like nurturing a child, a garden where we’ve planted seeds, an animal, or a piece of land. Freed from my extremely limited and limiting expectations and agenda, I can watch and appreciate all the unexpected, magnificent ways we are—and life is.

It’s the difference between saying: “This is who I (or the other) must or must not be,” and “Who are you?” or, even better, “I want everything you are and nothing you’re not.” Say that (and mean it) to yourself or someone you love every day and I guarantee your relationships will change for the better.

So, now, what do I mean by a friend?

A friend is someone with whom I can laugh, explore new information and ideas, excavate less-than-useful beliefs and patterns, learn and unlearn. A friend is someone with whom I engage in a contest of generosity. I want to ask questions, pull things out from under the bed and let the cat sniff at them, be wrong, problem solve, consider options. I want to practice boundaries, tolerance, respect and being real. I want to allow and be allowed. I want relationships that make my life bigger. I want to share reading, movies, music, memories, silence, work, nature, my truths. I want someone who says, “make yourself big!” while pursuing that same goal themselves.

(Not coincidentally, this is the kind of friend I strive to be to others.)

When I consider the above paragraph, and imagine that each of us could write an equally long but different paragraph, the concept of friend goes rapidly from a simple one-sentence definition to something much more complicated and personal. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were aware of it, but we’re not. We say friend, knowing exactly what we mean, and never considering that the person we’re talking to, who’s also using the word, means something different.

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Then, one day, these two invisible sets of definitions, expectations and desired outcomes collide and we experience, hurt, outrage, betrayal, anger, disappointment, rejection, fear and disconnection.

I admit I have no fix for this ubiquitous problem. Even being aware of how differently we define terms doesn’t save me from ending up sitting in the breakdown lane. It would be good if the problematic words in any given relationship had a tag warning us of problems ahead if we aren’t careful to understand one another from the beginning.

On the other hand, that would take out the part where we sit in the breakdown lane trying to understand what just happened, how and if to fix it, and how our choices led to it. Uncomfortable as it is, I value that opportunity.

Sitting in the breakdown lane with my heartbeat and breath. Feeling my feelings. Curious about what will happen next. Confident that when it’s time to move on I’ll know it and do so. Considering what I might learn in this space. Getting bigger. Getting bigger. Getting bigger.

My daily crime.