Henry Miller (on interest, beauty, forgetfulness)

We were about a dozen, and we were trying to work out the places where discipline, artistry, ends, practice, spirit, livelihood, beginnings and joy intersect. (My submission: all over the place!) We got quiet, and then we talked, and then we ate. I contributed this apparently velvety and colourful, but finally stone-cold prescription from the writer Henry Miller:

“Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.”

Henry Miller (1891-1980) was best known as a writer of frankly sexual and otherwise unconventional novels which were long banned in his American homeland. He wearied of his reputation as that naughty writer; he was a rather good one. This passage is cited in Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. While it is good counsel for writers, it’s an even better idea for pret’near everybody.

Gardens Green and Grounds for Optimism (Part One)

UPDATE: Author is reminded how to work his wife’s electronic mystery machine; photographs are added.

On a recent escape from Dalian – where lie wage-earning, grocery-getting and stale routine – my little nucleus explored choice cuts of Suzhou and Beijing. I dwelt on some of the unpleasant things of life in the Venice of the Orient here and here, but there was a great deal to like, especially when we were free to wander in parts of the old city less infested with tourist buses.

Photo opping the photo op: a view from Pingjiang Street.

Photo opping the photo op: a view from Pingjiang Street.

My bride and I strolled narrow Pingjiang Lu, and sure, it was meant for tourists, but it wasn’t garish, and it wasn’t wide enough for cars (let alone buses), and there were genuinely pleasant sights: bits of canal-watching, a pottery shop stocked with original pieces, Jiangsu street foods we hadn’t sampled before, and frequent tableaus of young Chinese women dressed in, I guessed, early 20th-century costume in the Chinese bride’s eternal quest — well, eternal for the last few years, anyway — for the perfect pre-marital backdrop. (I first thought the young women in sundresses and parasols lounging by the canal for a smoke, which is rather risqué and newly fashionable in China, might be “working girls”, but they were likely just waiting to turn a photographic trick.)

We’d heard about the “Humble Administrator’s Garden”, purported to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and had walked near it on the slightly nightmarish previous day.

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William Butler Yeats (on perceiving beauty)

“The world is full of magic things,
patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Guilty, guilty, guilty: I am a fan of W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet, and need this reminder, the all-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten reminder, to LOOK. Or the Yogi Berra  “dumb jock”-as-zen-philosopher koan: “It’s amazing what you can observe just by looking.” It’s amazing how much we don’t see, and discouraging how much natural, wholesome and otherworldly goodness we fail to notice because we’re fixated on the trashy, the tinsel, the temporary, the trite and the televisual. (That’s right, just call me “Mr. T”.)

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Kathleen Raine (on preference for ugliness, need for beauty)

“I have found myself wondering why the present age seems positively to shrink from beauty, to prefer the ugly, to feel safer, more at home with it; and I have come to realize that there is a reproach in the beautiful and the perfect; it passes its continual silent judgment and it requires perhaps a kind of courage to love what is perfect, since to do so is an implicit confession of our own imperfection. Can it be that the prevalence of the low and the sordid in contemporary writing is a kind of easy way, a form of sloth, an avoidance of that reproach which would call us, silently, to [aspire to] a self-perfection it would cost us too much to undertake? And yet it is in order to work upon us that transformation … that works which embody the beautiful alone exist. That is their function…”

Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) was an English poet and critic. I don’t know much about her, sorry to say. I believe this extract (the underlining is my emphasis, not hers) comes from a collection of her essays called Defending Ancient Springs (Oxford 1967). I ran across it in an essay by the Canadian poet Roger White, in a book called The Creative Circle: Art, Literature, and Music in Bahá’í Perspective, and can only think that this is more true now than when Ms. Raine wrote it.

A.A. Cooper (Seven Deadly Virtues)

The Seven Deadly Sins:

Truth, if it becomes a weapon against persons.

Beauty, if it becomes vanity.

Love, if it becomes possessive.

Loyalty, if it becomes blind, careless trust.

Tolerance, if it becomes indifference.

Self-confidence, if it becomes arrogance.

Faith, if it becomes self-righteous.

                                    Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1801-1885, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury: politician, reformer, philanthropist,

ODY: Weeks 18/19. 133/365. Home and Hearth.

Well, I just keep hacking away. It’s all about hideously retro concepts like faith and, ugh, duty. I can do dutiful, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some beautiful. I could sure use some inspiration. Just after the funeral dirge that was the last progress (?) report, I actually put together two really fine days of practice in a row. Whining is virtue! Venting can be fun and productive. Catharsis lives!

There was no aha, no shining moment of clarity. But as has happened before, coming back to work on smooth and semi-automatic chord changes did the trick, for a couple of days anyway. The Big Picture was awfully cloudy, but the microscopic viewpoint helped me see some new things. I realized that my index finger is always en retard when I’m shaping a D chord, so I’ve been focussing on getting that reluctant follower to lead for a change. He’s still not trustworthy, but Finger One can surprise me by doing what he ought to without me having to remind him every time.

Because we were either on the road or doing home improvements for much of the last two weeks, it was as if my 100-Day guitar habit had never been. More than once, I staggered gratefully to bed after a too-long day, pooped and dim-witted, only to realize that I hadn’t visited the Six String Chapel that day. Argh! Much groaning and rationalization ensued. Don’t be so anal. It’s after midnight anyway, so what does it matter? Besides, maybe One Missed Day – oh, the horror! the horror! — will give you something more interesting to write about, you know, the tragic death of a perfect attendance record (what is this, Sunday school?), and the inspirational story of overcoming that awful setback and building anew. No? Well, how ‘bout this? Just between you and me and the dishes in the sink, nobody cares whether you miss a friggin’ day! You’re not that important! This is about as meaningful as a dog taking a dump in the woods. Rover has a consecutive days streak going, too.

One of those days was the Princess’s birthday, so to that snarling voice was added her sweet one. It had been a quiet and lovely evening, and sleep was calling when the realization hit. “Oh, stay with me, it’s so warm. And it’s my birthday…” Now that was pretty convincing. I came close to falling from musical/dutiful grace, such as it is, so I had to summon my best argument. (Not so much to convince her, but myself. And it worked. It might even be true.) “If I miss one day, a second one won’t matter. Next thing you know, a week’ll go by and I won’t mind much. I’m not in lessons, so who’s gonna notice? The thing is, I feel like I could mail the whole thing in. It’s bloody fragile.” Okay, so maybe I’m a drama prince. (We all gotta get some drama somewhere.) But this Guitar Player persona IS fragile, and I could lose my tenuous toe-hold on the sheer face of music very easily. So I stumbled down to my mom-in-law’s laundry room, leaned against the washer and played some cement-floor blues. It actually felt good, like a small sacrifice that might someday have value. And the Princess was sleeping, and the bed was just as warm, when I gratefully crawled into it half an hour later.

A few days after that tiny crisis, I had a more comfortable perch in my big sister’s living room, and somebody to play with. It was the Return of the Itinerant Artist, into my personal space at least. While I didn’t get as much time as I’d hoped for guitar renewal with my music guru and son the IA, it was marvy good. He answered some questions, and made helpful observations on my technique and on my earnestly clumsy approach to this whole business. He showed me how to play the acoustic guitar line to “Wheat Kings” by The Tragically Hip. (It’s just G to C and back, with a D thrown into the chorus. Pretty much the same ingredients as CCR’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain”, but an entirely different rhythm. I’m going to have to hear it some more, because I’ve lost the feel of it.) We looked at my attempts at playing the Twelve-Bar Blues sequence – still having some trouble getting smoothly into the B7 chord, but I know da blues – and then the IA gave me a great and much-needed experience. “Okay, Dad, you play that line, over and over, don’t stop, and I’ll solo over the top of it.”

And away we went, two acoustic guitars in a quiet small-town living room, and I was playing MUSIC! I need to find way more of that. Holy Fun! ‘Course, when ever now and again I tried to get a little creative with my strumming rhythm, I instantly lost track of the chord changes. And it didn’t matter. The IA would just nod, smile and keep picking, and I’d gradually find my way back into the groove. Sweetness!

And on another road trip night, in another living room, brother-in-law Silent Paul and I followed our epic country walk with some guitar sharing. (He’s not so silent when it’s just two guys and some ideas that he cares about.) Actually, most of the sharing was his, as he’s a lot farther down this road than I am and actually performs in his church sometimes. He showed me a fine little sequence that starts with a different fingering of the basic E chord, leaving the first finger free. Sliding that same shape up the fretboard, and barring the 5th, 7th and 9th frets behind it with the free index finger, produces respectively a higher A, a B and (dropping finger three) a C minor chord. Nifty. SP got excited about showing me this guitar lick, and worked hard to figure out how to write the sequence of chords for me, since he plays it beautifully and brainlessly. I’ll need at least one more visit down home before I grasp this sequence – Paul gives me way too much credit – but it’ll be, at least, a fresh reason and a new way to work on barre chords.

Even better, it was a chance to share this way-too-solitary cruise with others. For those two nights, playing guitar was less lonely and more interesting. (This playing alone in my cave is what the IA mainly means when he shakes his head at my weird way of learning guitar.) I still don’t play well with others, or very much, anyway, but there’s hope. Two living rooms’ worth.