How an Artist Marks Time

"Your job is to learn to work on your work." - David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear 

Sometime in the last year -- I can't say exactly when -- I realized that I had forgotten how to make art. I kept making it, regardless (which is never a good idea, by the way), but I felt something missing: namely, a cognizance of what I was actually making, how I was making it, and perhaps mostly importantly: why.

And so, exactly four months ago today, I set out to reflect on those very questions in the only place that seemed suitable for such a mammoth introspective task: a run-down farm and former meditation retreat center in rural Wisconsin.

**

July 17, 2015: I awake on this morning to the beginning of a 3-day stay at Swarm Artist Residency. Artists gather – so the idea goes -- free from the distractions of life in the big city, with finally enough time and space to freely create all the things they have intended to create. Nothing stands in their way. Except for time.

Coming from the daily routine of train tracker apps and 30-minute lunch meetings, the idea of having even a full day, let alone three, to create anything quickly becomes overwhelming. It’s a case of too much possibility. The boundary of time feels insurmountable.

Groggy and sipping my morning coffee I watched the other artists get right to work: doodling on notepads, stringing ukuleles, flipping through the pages of worn books. With each passing hour, I felt like I was failing more and more thoroughly in my mandate to create freely. All I’ve made this morning is scrambled eggs!, I would think to myself. I must be a terrible artist.

**

I decided to begin the day with my morning yoga sequence. Although it was nearly noon, I had yet to settle into any particular activity and so this seemed as good a place to start as any. Besides, maybe the familiarity of the routine would jolt my body back into its usual productivity and creative vigor.

I searched for a quiet spot in the field -- not too visible as to look like I was showing off, but close enough that I still felt a part of the soft buzzing of artists-at-work. As I pushed back into my first, achey downward-facing dog, I thought about the woman I had met the previous afternoon, just before I left the city. I remembered our brief conversation, and wondered -- for a silly moment -- if she knew that I was going to be entering this alternative artist-time-zone the next day.

“Excuse me, is it Thursday?” I remembered her asking.

She was an older woman, with a slight Slavic accent. Her husband had looked up at us as he climbed his way out of the passenger side of the car. She was standing about a foot from my face, poised with a quarter in her hand.

I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I told her, “today is Thursday.”

“There’s no reason to keep track anymore,” she replied, “when you’re retired. Unless you have a doctor’s appointment or something.” She sighed, “well. We all mark time in different ways I guess.”

I nodded quietly, wishing her a pleasant afternoon, and continued down the street, her words turning over in my head.

**

My yoga mat tucked away, I strode briskly out onto the porch of the farmhouse and plopped myself down in a rickety plastic beach chair. My first day at Swarm was moving far too slowly. It was only about 2 o’clock, just a few hours after our “working lunch” check-in meeting, and I felt like I was wasting the vast openness of the afternoon.

I felt restless. My skin itched. My arms were twitchy. My entire body felt like a moth trapped in a jar. Maybe I’m too addicted to the city, I thought. Maybe I’m just not cut out for this whole relax-into-your-art thing.

These thoughts ran on and on, as I gazed out over the open field. Pure, midday sunlight gave the barn a mystical glow. My companions meandered leisurely about, out of sync with my own hurried pace, pausing to leisurely eat apples with peanut butter, or lie out on the grass, or give a quick pat to a passing dog. They seemed so undisturbed by the abundance of it all.

I had an idea. I snatched my camera from the table next to my bed, and set out to explore. After all, if I couldn’t create something myself, I could at least investigate how others were using their newfound creative space, right? And – spoiler alert – I ended up creating something. Funny how that happens.

**

I returned to the barn that evening just in time to feel the quietude of nightfall. The coolness. This is my time, I thought. The day had calmed, and my hyperactive mind had, too. I sat down in an old wooden chair, feeling like I just stepped off a rollercoaster. I flipped open my laptop and began to pull up the images from my afternoon excursion. I scanned through them one-by-one, tracking each step of my restless exploration. I thought about the awkward unfolding of my first day in this unusual community.

Swarm, I began to realize, is a place of tremendous contradiction: of unmitigated extremes of experience. One moment I would be listening to the soft hum of insects in the middle of a dense forest and the next finding myself surrounded by the endless clamor of bodies, plates, and slamming doors as fifteen people try to all simultaneously assemble tacos. It is a place of tremendous solitude and incredible overstimulation, of endless opportunity and of ungraspable time.

At Swarm a day can feel like a week, but each passing hour lasts only a second. By the end of my three days it felt like I had been here for three full weeks – just like the brief summer sessions at my old sleep-away camp. The vibe was right for it, too: campfires, hidden lakes, and even original songs replete with the charmingly familiar “friends-forever-even-though-we-just-met” refrain.

And just like when I left my summer camp each year, I departed Swarm with the distinct impression that I was forgetting to do something important. Like I hadn’t yet said goodbye in the right way, or spent enough time walking in the wilderness, or really dug into a juicy creative project. But art – like summer camp – is about making choices. You only have so many resources: so much money, so much energy, so much time. There really isn’t a “right” amount of any of it. And as I learned from my creative companions, we all mark time in different ways.

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In Praise of Downward-facing Dog

I’ve never quite understood organized religion. Dressing up, going to church, following a set of imposed rules and doctrines -- it always seemed like such a fruitless obligation. A + B + C = what exactly? I know, I know, it’s intangible. But that made it, well, hard to understand. School made sense to me: you went so that you could learn, go to college, and one day get a job. Even familial obligations seemed clear: these are the people that love and support you, and honoring special occasions with them is important.

But church (or temple, or what have you) always felt a bit out of reach to me. What exactly was the purpose of gathering in a room of (mostly) strangers to listen to someone else telling you what and how to feel and believe?

Well, it turns out that’s a pretty successful formula.

As kids, we’re used to having our days paced out for us. Our parents (if we’re lucky enough to have responsible parents) carefully map out a balance of familiar routines and new experiences, to provide us with opportunities to grow, explore, and discover the world around us.

Gradually, though, as we get older, that process becomes less clear. Done with formal schooling and working a series of intermittent jobs, there are days when I simply look around and think: now what? I have a career. I’m a responsible “adult” (sort of). But that doesn’t mean I always know how to keep myself on a steady path.

This is where yoga comes in. That lovely actor-training-technique-turned-exercise-regimen-turned-spirtitual guide has been an evolving part of my life for the last four years. And, surprisingly, at every turn it reminds me more of that church-going practice I never quite understood.

Criteria #1: community

Let me break it down: it’s a chilly Wednesday afternoon and I’m at home in Boston, MA, braving the winter doldrums. I pry myself off the couch long enough to make it to a far-too-intense 90-minute hot yoga session at a nearby studio. Midway through class, the instructor is encouraging us through a particularly difficult pose. “Remember,” he says, “there are 23 other very sweaty people in this with you. They got this. You ALL got this.”

That was when it hit me: there’s something powerful about a roomful of people committed to exactly the same thing as you. And all the better if you don’t know them, because there’s less social anxiety to deal with. It’s like the spiritual equivalent of writing an essay in a crowded coffee shop. You feed off the energy of your comrades, without even having to interact directly with them.

Criteria #2: sermon

But that class wasn’t just about the other people in the room. It was also about the instructor, pushing us to go deeper into a pose, or reassuring us that wherever we were in that moment was perfect.

My favorite yoga classes are the ones that begin with a small reflection or meditation on life. I like when the instructor actually takes a moment to recognize that we’ve all come together in the midst of the holiday madness, or on a rainy afternoon, or following a national tragedy.

Sound familiar?

This introductory “sermon” makes the practice feel pointed. Purposeful. We set our intentions so that we have something to work toward during our class time. As somebody with a type A personality, this always reassures me that it is time well spent. That something was accomplished.

I realized this was part of what I’ve always overlooked about religion: its potential for focusing or contextualizing the messy business of life.

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Criteria #3: ritual

Perhaps the most baffling thing to me about religion was the idea of being told what to do.  I value my own independence and free will to the extent that the very notion unnerves me.

So, why is it that I don’t mind it – and in fact crave it – when I am on my yoga mat?

The answer is something yogis call vairagya, the practice of “nonattachment,” or letting go. We spend so much time and energy as cruise director for our own lives that it can be nice to let go and allow someone else to steer the ship for a while.

And what’s more, that may be just what we need.

Yoga teachers and religious leaders alike rely on the power of ritual to help us along this path. Ritual provides a clear, familiar, comforting structure in which to release the need to control.

My favorite book on yoga, Meditations from the Mat, frames it this way: “yoga is about getting unstuck.”

Criteria #4: music

This one came as a bit of a surprise to me. The idea of yoga-as-religion had already been rolling around in my head for some time, and I figured I had picked out all the relevant similarities.

And then the “om” began. And I thought, of course. That clinches it. The part of the practice that connects us in an unspoken way, allows simultaneous, universal, egalitarian participation: music.

We are allowed this one, brief window into each others’ souls, uniting the disparate voices in the room, as would a familiar hymn on a Sunday morning.

I still don’t understand organized religion. I don’t think I ever will, truly. But the need for connection, for community, and for coherence? Yeah, that one feels pretty universal.