Victoria's essay and photo blog, Daily Practice of Joy,
Below, please find a selection of essays, blog posts, and poetry by Victoria.
Learning to See
“No man can say his eyes have had enough of seeing. . .” Ecclesiastes 1:8
Perhaps for you
are like our mesas.
Perhaps for you
these sunny-faced daisies
elegant Queen Anne’s lace
are merely weeds
waiting to be mowed.
But to me
of a liquid blessing
on the Res
his only purpose there
is not healing
but to fill plastic jugs
with clear liquid
from his bathroom tap
to whom this
necessity for living
has become a luxury.
our blood red mesas
the scenic backdrop to my life.
I do feel wonder
but of a muted kind
not giddy with the joy
I feel this morning
in this meadow
with these flowers
and these birds
this lush verdure
all around me —
The gleeful childlike joy of new.
to learn to see
with fresh eyes
that which we come
to take for granted
To look with gratitude
on that which we
merely to expect to be?
what we call
common and mundane
brought the same fascination as
our very first
roadside deer and fawn
red gold autumn hillside?
Perhaps to learn
to see anew
that illusive elixir
that turns back time
to the fresh wonder of childhood
the awe of first sight
the curiosity of youth
the joy we believe
we have outgrown.
This is my prayer.
my old familiar
with the same
I feel amid
To find joy in the blurred backdrop
excitement in the same old scene
wonder going round the block
awe at the almost invisible.
This is my prayer.
five year old new.
The pure and simple
in being alive.
the innocent amazement
we were never meant
This is my prayer.
Henry Miller in Lotos Land: Paint as You Like, and Die Happy
Originally published in Tin House Magazine #6, 2000
Republished in The Rumpus, 2009: Click here for full article with illustrations.
Thinking back on his first stay in Hollywood, Miller often reminisced about the Green House, “where I made so many watercolors, sold them for a song or for an umbrella I had no use for, but where I also made and found friends I never knew existed.”
On Henry Miller’s first evening in Hollywood in the summer of 1941, he arrived at the home of a millionaire in a “handsome black Packard,” having accepted a dinner invitation from a complete stranger. He did not know his host’s name, nor did he ever find it out. He would later write of the soirée, “The first thing which struck me, on being introduced all around, was that I was in the presence of wealthy people, people who were bored to death and who were all, including the octogenarians, already three sheets to the wind.” The dinner party went downhill from there, but Miller was nonetheless initially enthralled by the town in which “everyone thought he was a marvel.”
Hollywood was forty-nine-year-old Henry Miller’s last stop on the cross-country automobile journey that would lead to his quirky travelogue, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. A New Yorker by birth, Miller had moved to Paris in 1930. There he finally escaped the surreal series of love affairs, failed marriages, and degrading jobs that had been his dismal life and dead-end career to become a writer with one of the most distinctive voices in the English language. The three semi-autobiographical novels he penned in Paris in the 1930s — Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and The Black Spring — were acclaimed by such literary lights as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Aldous Huxley for their raw sexuality, unflinching honesty, and chaotically spirited language. He was hailed as the twentieth-century Walt Whitman, an uncompromising genius both of the written word and of the libido.
Miller not only found his voice and his calling in Paris, he found a home. He came to be regarded as the living incarnation of the Left Bank bohemian lifestyle. He knew every nook and cranny of the City of Lights, and he embraced Paris just as it embraced him. But when war clouds began to loom ever more ominously over the Continent in the late 1930s, the Brooklynite decided to return to safety across the Atlantic.
Safe though Miller might have been in New York, he was also poor and virtually unknown. The books that had made Miller a literary sensation in Europe had been censored in the United States by virtue of the Comstock Act, which forbade the circulation of obscene literature. Indeed, in his home country, if Miller was known at all, it was as an author of “dirty books.” The only way to get a copy of the Tropics or Black Spring was to smuggle them in from Europe or to purchase them from an underground press. Not surprisingly, Miller’s American agent was unable to drum up any buyers for his latest work, The Colossus of Maroussi, a lyrical book about Greece. But when the restless writer decided to travel across America and record his impressions of the homeland to which he had finally returned, Doubleday decided there was enough interest in this literary prodigal son to offer him a five-hundred-dollar advance.
Miller promptly purchased a 1932 Buick and headed west in the fall of 1940. For the next nine months, he wandered around the country, staying with friends and fellow authors and recording his adventures. The result, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, is a disjointed, cranky view of an America that Miller regarded as oppressive, warped, and cruel:
Nowhere have I encountered such a dull, monotonous fabric of life as here in America. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this is a sane activity? The land of opportunity has become the land of senseless sweat and struggle.
Miller completed his petulantly disillusioned opus in Hollywood, where he arrived on May 12, 1941. Moving from hotel to hotel, Miller hoped to find his way in California by contacting his many admirers in the film community. Having spent most of his twenties and thirties borrowing money from both friends and strangers, he saw this as merely a more elevated round of panhandling. Erotica had always been popular in the film community, and Miller’s books were an underground sensation. At least two bookstores, the Hollywood Book Shop and the Satyr Book Shop, did heavy trade in pornography, and many of the top actors and directors were known to have extensive collections of international erotica of all kinds.
But unlike during his early days in New York, Miller now regarded himself as a legitimate writer, so he tried to devote most of his time to his newest literary efforts. He sold selections from The Air-Conditioned Nightmare to magazines, and finally even found a publisher for The Colossus of Maroussi. Thus, when Hollywood came calling that summer, offering the infamous author a screenwriting job, Miller turned it down. He had just enough money to stay on the West Coast until October before returning home to New York for the winter.
Back on the East Coast, however, all Miller could talk about was the “desert colony” of artists and writers he had met in California. It wasn’t long before he began planning his return to the place he called “Lotos Land.” During the early 1940s, Hollywood had become a destination for many great European writers, artists, and musicians fleeing Hitler. From Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht to Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Rachmaninoff, Hollywood provided work for many of the world’s great talents during this international time of turmoil. Similarly, American writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, and Lillian Hellman all found their way to Los Angeles, lured by the big bucks offered by the movie studios.
In this heady atmosphere, Miller hoped he had found another Left Bank, where artists, writers, and musicians could nurture their talents among like-minded men and women. But unlike the Left Bank, the motion picture industry had the potential to make them all rich. Truly, Miller reasoned, Hollywood must be his Lotos Land. After just seven months on the East Coast, Miller was so restless that he began making plans for his return to the West. But it wasn’t until he received an offer of a free room from another writer, Gilbert Nieman, that Miller boarded the train for California. His ambition was clear: get a job as a screenwriter and make a ton of money. Like so many ambitious and creative hustlers before him, Miller saw Hollywood as Mecca of the get-rich-quick scheme.
But in fact what Miller would find in Hollywood was his soul. Upon his return to Los Angeles in the summer of 1942, Miller took up lodging in a small apartment in the Beverly Glen house of Gilbert and Margaret Nieman. As the main thoroughfare running through Holmby Hills — the opulent but understated enclave that has been home to Hollywood’s movie stars since the 1920s — Beverly Glen eventually winds into a narrow canyon filled with sycamore trees and small cottages. Close to UCLA and Westwood, the movie studios and Hollywood, during the 1940s the canyon area was popular with students and professors, artists and writers, and lower-end studio employees.
In this somewhat bohemian neighborhood, the Niemans lived in The Green House, which Miller described as “a snug, cozy place, more like an aquarium than a guest house.” Miller immediately felt right at home. But if Henry Miller had high hopes for his time in Hollywood, they were quickly shattered by what he discovered about the reality of Hollywood filmmaking. Far from the collective creative process he had envisioned, Miller soon realized that making movies was largely a technical endeavor, and that the job of the writer was to crank out low-minded scripts that the studios hoped would rake in big profits. The 1940s was the culmination of the golden age of cinema, an era in which the studios were run by megalomaniac tycoons who controlled not only every aspect of the movies they made, but also the lives of the men and women who worked for them.
Hollywood was a company town, and Miller was anything but a company man. In his one stint in corporate America during the 1920s, Miller spent five years as the highly corrupt employment manager for Western Union in New York City. He used his position to seduce women, pocket kickbacks, and shake down messengers for their tips. Still, Miller had fans in Hollywood’s high places and, after settling in at the Green House, he landed an agent quickly. But for all his big plans, when it came right down to it, the hard-boiled writer wasn’t sure he could do the work that his agent described as “just plain shit wrapped in cellophane.” Miller wasn’t the first writer to feel that way. William Faulkner worked on more than fifteen screenplays over the course of his contentious twenty-year relationship with the film industry. Continually drawn back to Hollywood by the money, Faulkner admitted that he “whored himself” to Hollywood as a script doctor. Although his movie work paid him so well that he was able to buy a large Mississippi estate and even his own airplane, he would later write of Hollywood, “I don’t like the climate, the people, their way of life.”
After a few months in Hollywood, Henry Miller felt much the same. He was disillusioned by Hollywood; moreover, he was poorer than he had ever been. But it was these adversities that would provide the impetus for a major life change. As he would come to see it, “Who knows what is good for man in this life? Poverty is one of the misfortunes people seem to dread even more than sickness . . . But is it so dreadful? For me this seemingly bleak period was a most instructive one, because not being able to write for money I had to turn to something else to keep going. It could have been shining shoes; it happened to be watercolors.”
Henry Miller had always loved art. He first began painting after seeing some Turner prints in a Brooklyn department-store window. There was only one minor drawback: he couldn’t draw. But his best friend, Emil Schnellock, could, and Miller became his disciple. It wasn’t long before he realized that what he lacked in draftsmanship, he made up for in color and composition sense. He discovered watercolors in 1928, shortly before leaving for Europe, a time during which, as he later wrote, “My writing was getting me nowhere fast, my domestic life was a shambles, and my ability to panhandle had become nil. When I found what the left hand can do — ‘the left hand is the dreamer’ — I became active as an ant. I painted morning, noon, and night, and if I ran out of paint, I used crayons, pencil, or hunks of coal.” Painting became Miller’s release and he returned to it almost fifteen years later, at a time when nothing else worked. Miller would later claim that he “could have had a good-paying job in the film industry. It wasn’t that I despised the handsome salary, but simply couldn’t pretend to kill time, which was part of the bargain.”
Whether a handsome salary had really been offered on this second sojourn in Tinseltown, we will never know, but we do know that Miller had recognized a fundamental truth about himself: he could never write for others. And so, much as he had begun writing as a form of panhandling in New York, churning out short pieces and sending them to potential patrons, Miller painted watercolors and began sending them to friends and, eventually, even to strangers.
It started at an art shop in Westwood run by a man with the unlikely name of Attilio Bowinkel. Miller went in one day to buy two tubes of paint, asking for the cheapest brand the proprietor had. When Mr. Bowinkel had filled the order, he politely asked if that was all his customer needed. Whereupon Miller quite frankly told him that it was all he could afford. Intrigued by Miller’s honesty, Bowinkel engaged him in conversation, at the end of which he said, “Choose what you like … paper, paints, brushes, whatever you need. It’s a gift.” A few days later, Bowinkel came up to the Green House to see his new friend’s work, and when he left he took a few paintings with him. When Miller next passed the shop, he was surprised to see them framed in the window. He was even more surprised when they were sold to MGM producer Arthur Freed, a collector of modern European paintings.
Taking heart from Bowinkel’s sale of his paintings, Miller next sent out a letter to the actor Vincent Price, a noted art connoisseur, who had recently opened a gallery in Beverly Hills. With his connections to the Hollywood glamour set, the European expatriate crowd, and the New York art world, Price was known for bringing adventurous new work by both American and European artists to the West Coast. Frequent gallery guests ran the gamut from Tallulah Bankhead, Katherine Hepburn, and Greta Garbo to Igor Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, and Aldous Huxley. When Price opened Miller’s missive, he found a loose, primitive, and very vibrant watercolor that had clearly been influenced by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. The letter stated that, if he liked the piece, he had only to send a tube of vermillion paint and a pair of socks in return. When he reached the bottom of the letter and read the signature, Price was thrilled. As a young man in the 1930s, he had traveled to Europe and eagerly smuggled back Miller’s books to the United States. And, as a man with an adventurous eye for art, he immediately liked Miller’s bold style. Soon a regular socks-and-paint-for-art exchange was flourishing between Price and Miller.
Price collected twenty or so Miller watercolors, and began showing them both to his clients and to other dealers. In December 1943, Price interested the Contemporary Art Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard in having a Miller show. As Margaret Nieman recalled, “It was just a wonderful time for him to experiment and to explore with watercolors. Henry always gave the paintings away except when Vincent Price got interested. Then it got to be more fun, and he sold a few.”
By the end of 1943, Miller had developed a happy routine with his painting. As he described it, “Catering to my clients in my own sweet way was quite different, it seemed to me, from accepting a handsome advance of a commercial publisher and getting tied up in knots struggling to produce the pap which they expect … I earned just enough to keep my head above water. It was like writing songs and getting paid to whistle them. They went fast, my little jobs. Some must have been absolutely frightful, no question about it. Even Vincent Price, generous and indulgent as he was then, balked at some I offered him. On the whole you might say that a happy atmosphere prevailed.”
The happy atmosphere included many new friends who supported Miller in his work. Margaret and Gilbert Nieman kept a roof over his head and food on his plate. Artists such as Man Ray and Fernand Léger supported Miller’s increasing dedication to his watercolors. Actors such as Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hollywood moguls like Arthur Freed, and wealthy women such as Melpomene Niarchos, wife of the shipping magnate, were patrons and frequent visitors to the Green House. Even the LA police chief once drove up in a limousine to introduce the director of a famous art museum. Soon Miller was selling his brightly colored paintings, with subjects ranging from clowns and fantastical creatures to nudes and landscapes, for what seemed to him an incredible sum of fifty dollars each.
In 1944, Miller produced a limited-edition, oversize book called The Angel Is My Watermark, which included an original watercolor, photographs of the artist at work, and an “Open Letter” in which Miller requested supplies and clothes in exchange for his work. He even provided his measurements and noted that he “loved corduroys.” Miller was working at a fevered pace, but he was not writing. The ardent, personal voice he had discovered in Paris remained lost in America. But he was painting, and in painting, he soon realized, he had found his passion. In The Angel Is My Watermark, he wrote of the solace he managed to discover in art, even with the world at war: When you put your mind to such a simple, innocent thing as the making of a watercolor you lose some of the anguish which derives from being a member of a world gone mad. Whether you paint flowers, stars, horses, or angels, you acquire respect and admiration for all the elements that go to make up our universe. You don’t think of flowers as friends and stars enemies, of horses as Communists and angels Fascists. You accept them for what they are and you praise God that they are what they are.
At the end of 1944, Miller left Hollywood for Big Sur, on the central coast of California. There he would make his home for twenty-one years, finally write the books that would bring him an American audience, and even succeed in getting Tropic of Cancer published in the United States. When he finally returned to Southern California in 1965, it was as a rich, successful, and celebrated author, who lived among movie stars such as Ava Gardner and Gloria Swanson, in a colonial-style house in the opulent community of Pacific Palisades. But just as he had done two decades earlier, he spent his days painting watercolors for his friends. Thinking back on his first stay in Hollywood, Miller often reminisced about the Green House, “where I made so many watercolors, sold them for a song or for an umbrella I had no use for, but where I also made and found friends I never knew existed.” The fame and fortune Miller had envisioned for himself in Lotos Land never came to pass during that first sojourn in Southern California. But his time in Hollywood did prove idyllic, for it was there that he began to paint and, as he put it, “to paint is to love again, and to love is to life life to the fullest.” By making watercolors, “turning them out like a madman,” Miller began “wriggling out of the straitjacket” of writing for others instead of for himself. And the love he found in painting led him to the joyous new voice with which he wrote as “the sage of Big Sur.” Far from the angry, avant-garde writer he had been in the 1930s, in the second half of his life Miller was known as a mild-mannered man with the spiritual air of a guru, a genius writer, a passionate painter. By painting as an amateur in the truest sense of the word — one who loves what he does — Miller finally became the person he had always dreamed of becoming. As he put it in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, “Whoever uses the spirit that is in him creatively is an artist. To make living itself an art, that is the goal.”
To the end of his life, my father, the actor Vincent Price, spoke with wonder about his first encounter with Henry Miller and their ensuing friendship. In the early 1940s, my dad was a rising star at Twentieth Century Fox who desperately missed the intellectual and creative stimulation of the New York art world. Educated at Yale and the Courtauld Institute in London, he was a well-respected art historian and collector. So, to stave off boredom in the company town that was Hollywood in those days, he and his friend, the fellow actor George Macready, started the Little Gallery in Beverly Hills.
During the war years, the Little Gallery was the place to see and be seen, as well as to enjoy the work of a wide range of new and established modern artists. My dad knew everyone in Hollywood, from Thomas Mann to Tallulah Bankhead. But when he received a letter one day from a man named Henry Miller, containing a vivid watercolor, he was tickled with the idea of meeting the celebrated author of “those dirty books, the real thing, an American legend.”
The friendship that ensued involved the exchange of dozens of Miller’s watercolors, and my father did much to launch Miller’s career as a painter. Their close relationship was relatively short-lived, however, as Miller, known for his short-fused temper, one day took offense at something my father could never remember having done. After Miller’s temper calmed, the two men remained on good terms, but were never again close. But to the end of his days, my dad treasured his interactions with Miller. And he particularly treasured his watercolors. He never sold them, but instead gave them away to close friends and family members. He gave me three. The first is a very primitive painting of a man in a house, dedicated to my father. It has never been reproduced, and now hangs in the Vincent Price Gallery at East Los Angeles College. The other two can be seen in the retrospective book on Miller’s artwork. “Ice Creatures” is a fluid, watery world filled with ghostlike figures. It, too, hangs at my father’s gallery. The last, “Agape,” is a colorful triptych of three nude women that I absolutely adore. It hangs in my home, where I enjoy it every day. It always serves to remind me of Miller’s credo: “Paint as you like, and die happy.”
Things Into Thoughts
I was riding my fabulous Vespa through Santa Fe, grinning from ear to ear at the sheer joy of being out in the world on a sunny Sunday morning enjoying a fast ride on a sleek Italian scooter, when I pulled up behind a beat-up old Subaru laden with well-worn bumper stickers. It was a long stoplight, which gave me ample opportunity to read all of them, most of which I had seen before. But one stopped me short. It read: THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE AREN’T THINGS. My mental dialogue leapfrogged from cynical to spiritual and back before the light even had a chance to turn green. The Devil on my shoulder snarked, “Easy for you to say driving that ratty old car.” To which my Better Angel replied, “But you know that’s the Truth–things ultimately do mean nothing. And you’ve known that all along.” The little guy with the horns had a ready comeback: “Right–like YOU, Amazon shopaholic YOU, are going to give up on things! Right! Ready to sell that Vespa you love so much?” The light turned green, and off I went, hoping to put the whole thing out of my mind. But when I pulled up to my Sunday morning tennis game, one of my friends yelled out from the court, “Sweet ride!” And the Devil grinned, feeling he had won. No way was I ready to renounce things. Things are what I do–I’m a designer, after all.
But I couldn’t get the bumper sticker out of my mind. THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE AREN’T THINGS. It’s true. And yet. . .And that was when it came to me. It’s not about the things, it’s about the qualities behind the things, the activities things allow us to partake in, the ideas that inspire the things or that things inspire in us, the feelings things evoke in us. It wasn’t about renouncing things per se–it was about resolving things into thoughts. Why do I love my Vespa? Because it is beautiful, fast, sleek, shiny? Sure. But really I love my Vespa because I am incapable of getting going for a ride on it without ending up smiling. I smile because I see and smell and feel the world as I move through it. I smile because I remember why I love living where I live. I smile like a dog smiles when it sticks its head out the window and feels the wind in its fur. I smile because riding my Vespa makes me feel alive, joyful, grateful. Those are the thoughts that this thing called a Vespa inspires.
And that made me think about my work as a designer. When I recommend or design something for a client, I am choosing it for the qualities it expresses–beauty, functionality, style, comfort, elegance, eye appeal–and the way I feel those qualities will enhance my client’s life. I know that. But do they? Do I express that?
Many years ago I taught a literature class to a group of recalcitrant junior high school boys on whom the other teachers had given up. These were boys who said they did not like to read–even though they were very intelligent. They preferred sports or science and thought literature at best nebulous, at worst a complete waste of time. So I prepared a syllabus that was all about guy stuff–action, sports, adventure, escape. Our first book was Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I was sure no boy could read that book without wanting to talk about it. But two weeks into the class, I hadn’t really gotten much out of them. They read each assignment, but never wanted to talk or write about it. So one day I came to class and I laid down a new set of guidelines.
1) When you come to class you must express an opinion.
2) When you have an opinion, there is no right or wrong. An opinion is simply what you feel or think.
3) When you talk about a book, you can hate it or love it, be bored or excited by it, and you will never be judged or criticized. But you have to explain why you have the response you have to it.
4) The only thing you cannot do in this class is not care or say “I don’t know.”
It was a slow start.
Me: “Why do you think he decided to float down the river to Mexico?”
Boy: “I don’t know.”
Me: Raised eyebrow. Wry smile. Long silence.
Boy: “Um. Because he wanted to drop out of society.”
Me: “Why would he want to do that?”
Boy: “I don’t know.”
Me: Raised eyebrow. Wry smile. Long silence.
Boy: “Because he felt like he didn’t fit in. . .”
And slowly but surely, the class began to flow. They started looking forward to talking about what they had read, because they realized that that was all I wanted of them–engagement. And all they had needed was the permission to feel or think whatever came to them.
Well, in some ways, we’re no different from those boys. We do so many things without knowing why we do them. We buy what the television or our peers suggest we buy. We eat what we were brought up to, what Dr. Oz tells us to, or what the pizza commercial makes us want to eat. But if someone were to ask us why, most of our answers wouldn’t be too far from “I don’t know.”
So, after thinking about that bumper sticker, I’ve decided to hold myself to the same rules I held my students whenever I talk or write about design.
Here are the rules:
1) Whenever I like or dislike a thing, I have to know why and be able to express it.
2) There is no right or wrong here, but I must articulate it. . .I start with a thing, but I must end up with a thought.
3) And as with the boys, I don’t know or I don’t care are never acceptable.
I have this idea that if I do this, if I make myself resolve things into thoughts, then my whole experience of design, as well as that of my clients, will change. If I can express what I feel and why, and if I can encourage my clients to do the same, design will be less about stuff and more about living. I can't help but thinking that, in our consumer-driven society, that all of us can benefit by thinking less about what we do or don't have or want in the way of stuff, and showing up to who we want to be and what we want to give back to the world. It's more than an exercise in expanding the boundaries of design. This is about designing a new way of living.
Social Commentary 101
To see the original blog with illustrations, please click here.
For years I’ve told people that my dream job would be (other than being that girl on the sidelines interviewing the players and coaches at every major sporting event) to be a public intellectual. Most people look like my dog does when he hears a high-pitched noise. They cock their heads once or twice and stare at me with an equal measure of incomprehension and mild annoyance–the subtext of which is, “Wow. That’s a little pretentious. . .and what is a public intellectual anyway?” What they actually say is, “Um, how do you get paid for that?” And my flip answer is usually something that confirms all their worst suspicions–like, “I have no idea, but now that Christopher Hitchens is dead, maybe there’s a job opening.”
Deflection and cynicism aside, the truth is that I have always admired people who have the guts to speak their minds about topics that compel me–social justice, art, beauty, celebrity culture, being caught in the cross-hairs between spirituality and religion, living a life of meaning. I admire them, because, until recently I wasn’t always brave enough to put myself on the line and take a stand for what I believe matters and makes life worthwhile. It takes courage, conviction, and a doggedness that can be either admirable or incredibly irritating. But whether we agree with them or not, without these terriers of talk, there would be no significant social discourse.
For almost 100 miles the weathered signs cropped up in windblown wheatfields: World’s Deepest Hand Dug Well. Visit Greensburg. We’d been driving west across Kansas all Memorial Day, stopping at tack shops looking for Western wear, local diners on my perpetual quest for the best American breakfast, flag-filled cemeteries filled with families remembering their loved ones–anything and everything that seemed interesting to us. But we were pretty sure we’d be taking a pass on Greensburg and its highly-touted well. Our goal was to make it to Dodge before sundown. Seriously. We’d ended up on this road because neither of us could imagine coming this close to Dodge City and not seeing what all the fuss was about. Greensburg was the last town between us and Dodge, and we glad to see it out the rear view mirror.
Finally, we were on the home stretch–hightailing it to Dodge, just like in the movies. And then, about a mile out of town, I saw them along the fenceline–a row of rusted, painted, steel figures and signs. I slammed on the brakes and proceeded to experience one of the great art moments of my life–rivaling my four hours transfixed by the vibrancy and power of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece or my afternoon of grace spent with the quiet beauty of Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. For about a mile along the road, an artist had erected a surreal collection of cutout sculptures made from painted scrap metal–a panoply of pop culture and political figures–Ted Kennedy becomes a corroded Bugs Bunny, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush both reference goose-stepping Gestapo, along with a fair measure buxom babes, comic-strip animals in acid, a wild assortment of wacky birds. Cooky, my dad would have called them–they were warped, crazy, mean-spirited, wicked, irreverent, odd, odd, odd, hilarious, and absolutely brilliant.
When I got home, I rushed to Google what I’d seen. MT Liggett lives in the poorest county in Kansas, a county so disenfranchised and out of touch with the rest of the state that it once voted to secede. Liggett was born in Mullinville, and other than a few years spent in the military, he’s lived there all his life. He makes his art from the junk he finds around him, and he’s never given a fig for what anyone thinks of his pastime. No one is exempt from Liggett’s social commentary: Hillary and Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, James Carville–it’s safe to say Liggett isn’t overly fond of Democrats. But George W. Bush takes an even tougher licking, as does his wife. It seems Liggett doesn’t hold anyone who’s spent time in Washington in high esteem.
I found myself wondering: What if Liggett hadn’t found this outlet for his outrage? I suppose he could have gone down to the local bar and bellyached at the TV set until his friends became his enemies, until everyone stopped listening or caring. Instead, he made art–art as social commentary–as clever and caustic and thought-provoking as any I have seen.
But Liggett’s art isn’t all about anger. The ubiquitous Kansas Jayhawk occupies pride of place alongside an assortment of women who evoke a wide range of expression. Julie and Kim, whoever they are or were, have morphed into a dinosaur and raven respectively. Diane fares much better–and if his depiction of her physique is accurate, one doesn’t have to stop and wonder why. While Marilee, the Honey Enchantress, skulks off with her Eros arrow. The whimsy and wonder of these pieces fueled my joy all the way home that night night, and even now, a year later, I find myself itching to go back and spend more time them–more time with the social commentary of MT Liggett.
I’m just starting to learn about the groundswell of connectedness called Social Media, in which blogging is well on its way to becoming our chief national–perhaps even global–discourse. A free space where anyone can speak their mind about what matters to them. In this paradigm, isn’t everyone a public intellectual–or at least a contributor to our collective dialogue? What’s holding me back? A lifelong habit of worrying about what others will think? That age-old training growing up in a Hollywood that still believed it had control over the reputations of its stars not to “reveal too much”? Lately, I’ve been fortunate to be given the opportunity to speak around the world on a variety of topics–and each time I’ve tried for a little more honesty, a touch more truth. It’s scary standing up and saying what I believe, but every time I do, I know it’s made a difference–if not to the people who graciously take the time to talk to me afterwards about their lives and dreams, fears and hopes, then simply to me, shedding a lifelong habit of hiding my deepest self, of trying not to speak about anything that might ruffle a few feathers along the way.
And so, here it is–my reckless plunge into blogging, which is, of course, my chance, at last, to live out my dream of writing about what matters to me–social change; travel as transformation; material culture vs materialism; the importance of listening; my family history; God, Good, Love, Truth; remembering joy; teaching and learning in equal measure; the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen; the images and ideas that have resonated, and particularly the ones I can’t shake. And that’s just for starters. . .
People stumble upon blogs much like I stumbled upon the mixed up metal world of MT Liggett. I can imagine that some people might have glanced at them as they hurried past on their way to someplace more important–just as many blogs go unread. Some will take the time to look and bubble up with anger, while others, like me, will be inspired by one person’s gumption, creativity, and take with them images, ideas, and, with any luck, hope. Hope that each person will take the time to contribute something to the common good. Of course, one wonders if Mr Liggett’s neighbors feel that his contributions are all for the good. Whatever they might say, I say: Absolutely.
As long as we remain free to speak–whether through images, language, movement, song–in anger or in joy, in frustration or in hope–then the promise on which this country was founded remains a beacon of promise to everyone for whom the basic freedom to speak their mind is still a distant dream.
The Democratic Republic of Love
July 31, 2016
adjective dem·o·crat·ic \ˌde-mə-ˈkra-tik\
: relating to the idea that all people should be treated equally
noun re·pub·lic \ri-ˈpə-blik\
: a body of persons freely engaged in a specified activity
If you had told the teenage or twenty-something me that, during what may later come to be regarded as the most divisive and important election of my lifetime, I not only had not engaged in, but actually had avoided political discourse, I would never have believed you. If you had told me that, by the time I was 50, I would have come to believe our government so irrevocably broken that I no longer felt compelled to participate in conversations about how to rebuild it, I would have said you were nuts. And if you had told me that I would be at best completely dispassionate about every single candidate who put forth their name to run for president in this campaign, well, frankly, I would have thought I had either suffered massive brain trauma or completely sold out. But all of those things have felt true during this political season.
From the time I was a little girl watching Walter Cronkite report on the the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War on the CBS Evening News (which always ended with a body count), I felt that political, civil-rights, and animal-rights activism would be the most compelling conversation of my life -- my path, my raison d'etre. I became politically active as early as I could, and remained passionate in my activism into my early thirties. But then something happened. In retrospect, I think I would describe it as dis-heart-enment. I no longer felt the Love behind the movements about which I had cared so much. Everything began to seem more like rhetoric and less like the deep caring and concern for the wellbeing of ourselves and our planet, which had so inspired me in leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Although I still considered myself an engaged person, I really wasn't. I mostly watched from the sidelines, and sometimes just showed up for the fourth quarter.
Not coincidentally, my early thirties were also the time that I found my way back to the daily spiritual practice, which had been so central in my life up until my mid-teens -- when suddenly my desire to "feel like everyone else" had outweighed the pull of my soul. It was rediscovering that spiritual path twenty years down the line that led me to place I find myself another twenty years on. . .today. Am I disengaged from political discourse? Yes. Disheartened by all the divisiveness? Yes. But I am also more profoundly hopeful than I have ever felt in my whole life.
This blog is about that hope.
I have been an avid student of history my whole life. I remember my father telling me that he had heard Hitler speak during the 1930s and how he could FEEL what was coming -- not from the power of Hitler's blustering rhetoric as much as the effect it had on the massive crowds who turned out to hear him. It is easy, in retrospect, to look back on the poor decisions made at the end of World War I that led to the nationwide disenfranchisement and disillusionment that gave rise to a Hitler. I have seen the million mark notes that barely bought a loaf of bread. I have been a student about the art, culture, literature, and politics of that period. Do I see the parallels to our the escalation of hate-mongering, senseless violence, and divisiveness all over the world? Yes. And does that kindle fear in me? Yes and no.
The best part of being 50-something is that the urgency I felt in my teens and twenties to DO something has shifted into a calm clear knowing that doing might not always be the best first step to take. Instead of being shot from a cannon by everything I read that inspires or angers me, I now try to take things in more deeply, see more honestly, and hear more openly. Instead of trying to solve a problem "out there", I recognize that, if I am seeing something out there that angers me, makes me afraid, about which I feel judgmental, I probably need to turn the mirror around and look at those things in myself first.
I didn't come to this place easily. It is a lot easier, as so many people have recognized, to be a human doing than a human being. As someone who has a hard time sitting still for 20 minutes, whose general solution to almost anything is to do or to plan, getting to this less reactive place has been a struggle. It took reaching one precarious precipice after another and teetering from many edges for me to recognize that I had to save myself before I could do anything about saving the planet. How could I possibly show up in anyone else's life if I wasn't showing up in my own? So, that's what I started to do. Slowly but surely. But it wasn't until I began practicing joy and writing this blog that something really clicked. I had been trying to take more time off, eat better, get more exercise, have fun. But there was one thing I hadn't really been doing. And that was loving myself. In choosing to practice joy, I finally had to face down the lifelong fear and self-loathing which had so often won the day and choose Love. Because without Love, not only is there is no joy, without Love, there is no anything. Period.
Let's be real. To love ourselves, one another, the other beings on this planet, the Universe itself -- it ain't always easy. I have always adored C.S. Lewis wonderful little book on love, in which he wrote, "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell." But not to love, not to choose joy, not to connect with one another absolutely is the Hell of our our own creating.
Over the past few weeks as the conventions splashed across social media and news headlines, I wondered how I would feel about them. I couldn't watch them: I have no television and idiosyncratic internet service at best. But I have been able to see clips and to observe the responses of my friends as well as total strangers, from pundits to regular people. As people started commenting and posting on Facebook, I could feel the youthful activist me want to Like, Dislike, Wow, Angry, Sad or Comment on Facebook. But from the get go, I set myself the goal of not reacting -- in any way other than one. That one was inside my heart.
If a car is in a wreck or a house suffers a major disaster, an appraiser is brought in to decide if the damage can be repaired or whether the car or house should be totaled. For years I've been saying that the system is broken, but what good does that do? The only thing that happened to me was that I felt disempowered and apathetic. It was as though the appraiser came and said, "Wow, what a disaster." And then walked away. Great. You have a car you can't drive or a house you can't live in. . .Now what?
In choosing not to react to the conventions, I worried that I had just chosen another form of that apathy. But this felt different. It wasn't that I had no feelings, or even no opinions. It was that I was trying with every fiber of my being not to have any judgments. In fact, over the course of the past two weeks, I have had to take myself to task about my sweeping pronouncements about our "broken system" and really look deep and hard at my own judgment. What I remembered was that systems, institutions, governments, electorates are comprised of individuals just like me, and all individuals face the same choices every day -- a choice which, in everything we do, comes down to choosing fear or Love. And what I am seeing out there is something I have lived for many years inside myself: We are afraid. Some of us are afraid of one thing, and some another. For some, that fear is embodied in a person. For some an issue. For some a skin color. For some a foreign country. For all of us, there are fears around health, safety, financial stability. But fear is up for all of us. Big time.
So what happens when we are afraid? Our instinct is to look outside ourselves both for safety and for someone to blame. We judge to deflect our own fears onto Other, whatever or whoever that Other may be. But, as Honore de Balzac so wisely wrote, "The more one judges, the less one loves."
When I look at people whose politics do not seem to be like my own and recognize their fears as parallel to mine -- even though to some I may be an embodiment of their fears -- when I have compassion for their fears in the way I hope others can have compassion for my own, then what am I doing? I am choosing Love. And, to quote Anais Nin, "What is love but acceptance of the other, whatever (s)he is."
So that's what I have tried to do for the past two weeks. And as each day passed, with the news and social media filled with hate and hope, love and fear, joy and anger, I realized something. I realized that I was ready to engage again. But not with parties or systems or saviors. I was ready to engage with people. People like me who are afraid -- whatever their fears may be. To hear and hold their fears -- even when they cause my own fears to surface, to love them even when I know they do not want to love me, to be present to what is instead of ruing what I keep saying is broken. And as I allowed those feelings, those desires to sink in, one of my lovely little light bulbs for which I am always so grateful suddenly switched on. I realized that I, homeless though I may be, I have a place to live: The Democratic Republic of Love.
The Democratic Republic of Love: A state of mind in which all people are engaged in Love and so are treated and treat others equally -- with love.
The Democratic Republic of Love has existed forever. It is in each of us. In the Democratic Republic of Love, we do not look out from either/or eyes, but rather and/also hearts. In the Democratic Republic of Love, we do not need walls, because everyone belongs there. In the Democratic Republic of Love, all we do is love -- ourselves and one another. Which means that, in the Democratic Republic of Love, there is no hate, no judgment, and no fear. Sound pie in the sky? Some ridiculous utopian fantasy that has no place even being dreamt of in our dystopian imploding planet?
In the Democratic Republic of Love, we "love one another" (Jesus); we "love the whole world as a mother loves her only child" (Buddha), and our hearts are "joined in love" (Qu'ran). In the Democratic Republic of Love, "Love is the Water of Life" (Rumi) and "everyone is welcomed, loved, and forgiven" (Pope Francis). "We are united. . .with. . .Love, dwelling in our heart" (Bhagavad Ghita), and we all recognize that "we are made for loving" (Desmond Tutu).
Crazy? Unrealistic? Not relevant now? I don't think so.
“All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.”
— -W.H. Auden
Written in 1939, on the cusp of World War II, Auden gave voice to a truth that must never be forgotten. Unless we all choose to take up permanent residence in the Democratic Republic of Love, there will be no more planet over which political parties, politicians, dictators, demagogues, hatemongers, terrorists can fight. We must love one another or die.
The problem is that none of us really feel we can live in there, in the Democratic Republic of Love, every single day. It feels too hard. Too unrealistic. Too scary! We all feel afraid, disenfranchised, and we are all struggling hard enough to love ourselves and our families, let alone the person we read about in the paper who makes our blood boil. So where do we start?
We begin with ourselves. Loving ourselves. Even when we hate who we see in the mirror, when we say something dumb and feel like an idiot, when we flip off the driver who cut us off, when we hate having to pay taxes, when we yell at the dog or treat the customer service person we have called poorly. Even then. Because we move on from there -- loving the person to whom we said the dumb thing, that driver we just cursed, the IRS, the politicians, the people whose lawn signs differ from yours, the man in line talking about the candidate who scares you, the mosquito that just bit you, even the person who invented the mirror. Love them all. And then keep doing it. And doing it. And doing it. And then do it some more.
If this was easy, our planet wouldn't be hanging on by a thread and everyone wouldn't be calling one another names or blowing up innocent people. It isn't easy. We all know that. But it's the only way. We must love ourselves and one another or die.
Ilia Delio writes, "Our challenge today is to trust the power of life at the heart of life, to let ourselves be seized by love, to create and invent ways for love to evolve into a global wholeness of unity, compassion, justice, and peacemaking."
You can's say it any better than that. And still, that sometimes seems so lofty and huge that it feels beyond us. And we can't let it. We have to find ways to love every single minute and let that love ripple out into Wholeness and healing. For me, I'm just trying, every minute of every day, to practice what I preach: Love everyone, everything. No matter what. Do I succeed all the time? No way. But what I do succeed is witnessing when I fall out of Love, and then choosing to fall back in. So, instead of ending this blog with another lofty call to action, I'm going to end with a Country Western song I just love. Because what Kacey Musgraves so beautifully captures in this song is the reason why, ultimately, loving so much easier than we think it is. If we each remind ourselves of this one thing: Every single person out there is just like me. They have a Democratic Republic of Love inside them as well. Like me, they are flawed and hopeful, powerful and weak, fearful and brave, hopeful and heavyhearted. And like me, they are just looking for Somebody to Love. We are all just looking for Somebody to Love.
Let's be that Somebody to ourselves and one another.
And so it is.