Freedom and Constraint

Walking through San Francisco in the late afternoon, I’m struck by the intense contrast of shadow and light. The buildings seem to be standing on their tip toes competing for the suns last rays of warmth and leaving us below in the in-rushing flood of cold shadows. I think of canyons I’ve hiked at this time of day, where the sun gives you, the outsider, a sidelong glance as she converses with the cliff tops at a distance, as if to say, “So now that I’m leaving, you’re interested? Tough luck, you had your chance.” In the radiance of her closing beauty, one easily forgets how direct and over bearing she was at mid-day. Sure, those delicious day’s end colors come from her angle with our Earth, mixing longer waves of colored vibrancy into her rays, but perhaps the colors are made more beautiful still by our idealization of what is slipping from our finger tips. For although she is leaving, she wants us to remember her, in her softly glowing glory, an arms length away. I’m reminded that although my microcosm has changed, I’m a country mouse in the city; the macrocosm continues to hold me and nourish my soul with spectacular abundance.

These moments of intensity of experience, when a color, of pure blue sky or the flaming orange flower of Cannas, breaks into your mentally churning world and you just have to stop walking. All you can think is “wow”, and there’s this feeling of inner luminance bursting out into complete humility in the awe of such creation which is, at once, within and completely beyond yourself, a paradox held in joyous trembling. It’s the reverence of communion, of namaste, of Eucharist. It is the sun’s last rays which you are unable to touch, but able to drink deeply with your eyes. It’s the consuming desire to posses that which your embrace would destroy, so you hold your passion back, and allow it to pass in and out of your experience undisturbed.

So, that experience birthed a phrase, which birthed a poem, which birthed a work of art which is now giving birth to this paper. What a privilege to participate in such a process, the continual transformations by which the Universe creates! “The many become one and are increased by one.” (Whitehead) Thus the canyons of my past, the city of my present and the sunlight of my life all become me and birth a phrase, a new subject in this communion of creativity. The simple phrase began, “windowed walls of concrete canyons,” then mingled with others to form a flowing poem…

Windowed walls of concrete canyons,
holding last loving licks of light,
only gaze graspable in height.
Fleeting flow of flits of fire,
carving below these reflective slits conspire,
to inspire,
to upturn face
from self pitying embrace,
to entice finger trace
from dusk shrouded flicks of grace
to far away flames of fusing fireball face,
to reveal the glory
of the larger story
that holds this cold steely rolling stream,
that carved this canyon from a dream,
whose breath now rips through in cold lashes,
yet, unable to unite the masses

From within
it’s hard to feel,
the heaves, the groans,
the aches, the moans,
of our mother, of our home.
She endures alone,
the lead bullet of our sin
we’ve embedded deep within.
Every action, competitive, repetitive, again and again,
Amplifying, death defying
Tiptoe teetering totter of men
Using for fodder, their own kin,
Fuel for the greedy fire within

Each time we survive 6 others die down below.
Who counts the no shows?
Who loves the hobos? The bonobos? The mangroves?

Our mother weighs the loss,
Grieves the grief and pays the cost.

These times are dark and ominous.
Death crouches in the corner.
Mother fights,
with life,
for life,
hers and ours.
The women gather.
The women chant.

Fear not, the time is coming.
Fear not, your bones are strong.
Fear not, good friend, help is nearby.
Fear not, Anubis is a gentle companion.
Fear not, the hands of the midwife are clever.
Fear not, the earth is beneath you.
Fear not, little mother.
Fear not, mother of us all. (Diamant, 1997)

Dark death of day births the pearl so bright,
of velvet sea, of crisp cold night,
Shadows within shadows by its light.
And the moon shines through the women’s right
coating darkness in beauty, ever so slight.

So from this poem came the imaginal image and the artistic rendering of the merger of the towering buildings and canyon walls catching late afternoon light, and of the sculpting forces of automobiles and rivers catching bits of that light from within the giants’ shadows. I stand with my dog, silhouetted in the foreground. The buildings and cars are my external reality. The canyon, the river and the night are my internal reality, now intermingling with the city outside.

art 001

I included my dog, not because I frequently take him for walks in the city, but because he was part of the country I left behind. At 16, his health wasn’t stable enough for a move from Texas to San Francisco, and I couldn’t really take him away from my mom either. She finally had to help ease his transition out of this world about a week before I did my artwork, and the day before the class where we were all so poignantly reminded of beloved pets by Bonnie’s poem, though at that time I was yet unaware I had lost mine the day before.

His name was Half Moon, Halfy, because of his coloring, a black sheltie with half a white collar. We had a long history together. He was born to my sister’s dog in our house very near my eighth birthday. I paid her one hundred dollars for him, and that was with a fifty dollar discount, since I was family. He was the fattest and the laziest of the three puppies, my brother would tease, but I never thought so. I just noticed how happy he was all the time.

My sister and I took our dogs to obedience school together. On the first day of class the instructor used Halfy as an example. He didn’t know her and didn’t want to walk with her on the leash. She yanked him, he yelped and I nearly cried. Why had I brought him here, this delicate loving, living thing for whom I was responsible? How could I protect his innocence from the cruelty of the world? Another layer on my tough exterior shell calcified to protect my inner tenderness from the pain inflicted by others’ harsh exteriors in preemptive protection.

I used gentler means in my training and Halfy was an eager learner. Whenever he got confused and didn’t know what I wanted from him he’d lie on his back with his feet up in the air, saying in a language I learned quick enough, ”I’m sorry! I give up! I just don’t know what to do. Can’t you just rub my belly and make this frustration go away.” I quickly learned that making more demands to get him back on his feet got us nowhere in those circumstances. To get him up, the mood had to change. I had to be playful. Only then was the slate wiped clean and we could try again. In this way he taught me the value of non-attachment and beauty of lightening up and letting go.

When he got a little bored with our exercises and slowed down, I learned to pick up my voice, to speak with energy and he would respond with enthusiasm. Thus, when I delivered the commands in the show ring it wasn’t a command of domination which would have weighed Halfy’s spirit down, but a communion of desires. All that sweet dog ever wanted was to love and be loved, and for that he would do anything. So when I said his name with love and joy he responded in kind.

I was very proud of our two obedience titles, which each required three qualifying scores in shows. In a recent conversation with my mom I learned that she had worked with Halfy while I was at school. “Oh,” I said, slightly downcast, “I thought I had done it myself.” Twice since then she has made it a point to tell me that I did a lot, and that my relationship with Halfy was really something special. She mentions the show where we won first place, saying it was obvious to everyone that we should win because we both looked so happy out there doing it. It had always been a mystery to me how the judges chose between dogs, so was happy to receive the prize, but certainly surprised by it. So to hear my mom offer that perspective filled me with a special joy and led to a deeper understanding of a secret gift she and Halfy, together, had given me.

I tend to downplay the importance of others in my life, as part of my tough exterior of total independence I guess. I was a terrible child in my early years, perpetual crying, temper tantrums, you name it. My mom must have done something right because I ended up as a pleasant child instead of perpetuating those behaviors. Mainly she just ignored my fits, as if that could have been an easy task. I think, maybe, I was just bitter at being separated from eternal bliss and tossed into this world, a reluctant bodhisattva. It seems that I did most of my reconciling to my fate here on earth in those first traumatic years, where I learned putting up a fit got you nowhere. You might as well just suck it up and get on with it. Thus shell formation began. And as with all adaptations one must be wary of over-correction.

I learned that if you just ingest the bitter pill it dissolves and you can turn it into something beautiful. Inside, I was in control. I refused to give the unpredictable externality any control in my domain. I wasn’t about to waste all my time and energy protesting the unavoidable. All things are part of you already, the good and the bad. You can use your power to maintain the separation with the things you find displeasurable or you can accept them as your own. Then, in changing your relationship to them, learn to love and accept that which you cannot change and to lovingly inspire change where you can. But as helpful as a shell can be in establishing individuality, its permeability must be exercised to prevent the shell from sealing you in.

One has to acknowledge the importance of externality and internality to each other. I am not the indestructible isolated unit of production and consumption that modernity has taught me I am. I can’t be ripped up from my place of origin and adapt to any environment. I depend on my context for my identity, meaning, and healthy functioning. Thus I struggle to integrate the context of my make-up, nature, to the context of my current situation, the city. As Paulo Coelho illustrates in his novel, The Alchemist, “The caravan and the desert speak the same language, and it’s for that reason that the desert allows the crossing. Its going to test the caravan’s every step to see if it’s in time, and if it is, we’ll make it to the oasis.” This point has been hammered home for me from a variety of sources this semester, as in this novel I read for pleasure, as well as in academic arenas.

The contrast between the modern neglect of the importance of place and the reality of our embeddedness finds articulate elaboration in my Ecological Postmodernism class with Charlene Spretnak and Brian Swimme. Charlene elaborates the modern value of freedom at the expense of the importance of constraining context,

Place was associated with constraint: the binding ties of community, extended family, and tradition, as well as the local demands of nature. The heroic figures of modern literature boldly escape their place of origin and head for the new promised land: the city, with its sprawling urban potential rising from flattened hills and filled in stream beds, offering anonymity and heady autonomy in exchange for nearly everything else. (Spretnak, 1997)

I’ve embraced the modern project of autonomy and thrived on it. I’m so “cool” nothing fazes me. I’ve got my “all business attitude” and I’m always efficiently self-competent. Somewhere along the way, however, relationality became overshadowed by rationality. And now because I have so carefully defined myself so as to be mindful of my ethical relation to all others, many of the activities which would allow me to relate to the majority of people, I have abandoned. Brian emphasizes the reality of the relationship between an individual and place via an evolutionary process of relating thereby creating continuity and seamlessness between self and environment,

This dynamic of interrelatedness as natural selection is one that presses, always and everywhere, for a deep intimacy of togetherness. This dynamic in living beings goes as deep as the very structure of genes, body, mind; a dynamic that mocks the modern foolishness of thinking that a community is composed of isolated atomic individuals. To be alive means to find one’s identity in the togetherness of the community. (Swimme/Berry, 1992)

There is no such thing as an independent entity, “The horse is the whole region galloping, a creation of the entire plains.” (Swimme/Berry, 1992) Then what is one to do when they have arrived at a point where they have consciously chosen to rupture their relationship with their community for the sake of the community? Brian talks at length about the evolutionary process of changing ecosystems. Just how does a creature of one bioregion come to inhabit another?

The conscious choice to invade a new niche is the primary step toward subsequent changes in genetic material…Naturally there will be times when an animal has not consciously chosen to create a new niche, but is simply swept into a new world and makes the best of it. (Swimme/Berry, 1992)

To survive in a place you have to become that place, know it, listen to it, and take it into yourself. Give yourself over to it, release your ego, become part of it; allow it to dictate your meaning according to the applicability of your abilities. However you can be in relationship, provide continuity, and link cycles within the given system – this will be your purpose. Your former purpose will shrivel away for lack of use; it is no longer contextually reinforced.

This does not bode well for me as I have migrated into the city and I do not want to take the city into my being. I don’t want to conform to its distorted reality. “The entire staggering complexity of the mountain community is slowly taken into the heart of the woodpecker’s reality, so that its former identity melts away and what lives instead is this mountain-community-as-woodpecker.” (Swimme/Berry, 1992) But luckily there’s another side to this reality as well.

Not only do you respond – you also form the environment. Enter consciousness, the blessing and the curse. No longer can we simply blissfully participate, now we must decide. We, as modern Western humans, so resent the complete determination of context as dualistically completely counter to our most prized value, freedom, that our relationship, to all that is contextual and constraining, atrophies, as we narrowly elevate freedom above all else. We can bring this importance of context and constraint back into importance, but must be wary of overcorrection here as well.

How does one navigate this complex relationship? How do you know whether to create or conform? To alter or accept? The answer is not an either / or, its both /and. Your internal integrity is maintained in continuum with externality. You conform, and create within the boundaries set for you. And because of the infinite potentiality of creativity seeded within finite bounds, it’s more likely that you will reshape those boundaries not by fighting them directly, but by redefining their interiority. By expanding into another dimension it’s easy to see outside of, and step over a lesser dimensional line that previously constrained when you were limited to that dimension. Thus even with an immobile body, one’s mind is infinitely free. This is the power and the down fall of interiority, of consciousness, of freedom, of the small, the simple, the easy, the moment, the creative potentiality. The infinite potentiality and freedom is so enticing one is tempted to, and may accidentally, seal themselves off inside, ironically constrained from constraint entirely, but this would mean death. For without the constraint of relationship infinite potentiality becomes nothingness. Thus, I struggle to maintain shell permeability, to remain in relationship and nurture my interconnections, for the flourishing of myself and the world.

Part of maintaining shell permeability is tempering my pride in autonomy and occasionally taking that first step toward the unpredictable beauty of interaction, rather than expectantly awaiting it to come to me. Service is a sacrifice of self. I’m especially resistant to serving men because that action is taken for granted and taken advantage of so often in a larger context. But service is not done for “credit”, is not done in exchange, and is not done because another deserves it. It is an act of love for God / the Universe / the community / the emergent property that is relationship. Then I guess one just has to decide which relationships they want to nurture.

It’s easier for me to be alone, but that solitude would be barren without the fruits of communion with others. Thus, my mom and Halfy conspired to help me maintain my permeability. I would retreat to my books or be “too busy” with increasing activities, as my freedom came to be my constraint in true paradoxical style, and Mom would constantly remind me, “Kerri, you need to work with Halfy,” or, “Why don’t you take Halfy for a walk?” There I was reminded of the beauty of overcoming reluctance. It wasn’t my idea, it wasn’t something I had planned, but it was my responsibility, so I accepted it. When I could get over the feeling of being weighted down, I could enjoy the lightness which emerged from those walks. Then my mind wasn’t directed and hemmed in by scholarly goals which were quickly taking over my world. There, in the simplicity of the repetitive tasks of maintenance of relationship, I had a freedom unavailable to me elsewhere. I learned the importance of balancing spontaneous self-direction with direction by a set pattern, teasing out the intricacies of the self / other relation, of the create or conform, alter or accept dilemmas.

Often creativity is abstracted as an independent force, but it is highly contextual. My creative process typically relies on restrictions in order for it to manifest anything rather than nothing. As fertile as infinite possibility is, it may only produce an overwhelming catatonia of depression. But if given any raw material or an idea and a little time, chances are I can come up with a creative emergent form. The creative process of an artist participates in the mutual arising of form, catalyst, and restriction in dynamic tension, as she turns inside to create that which the rest of the universe cannot.

Over the past couple years Halfy’s battled with his health. When I was home two summers ago his back legs would frequently collapse behind him. We talked about putting him down then. I wouldn’t hear of it, he was as happy and enthusiastic as ever, not seeming the least disturbed by his handicap. I devised a plan to build him some wheels for his back legs, but luckily we never had to implement it because my mom discovered that it was a side effect of his heartworm medicine. So we took him off it and he gradually improved, though now older, deaf, slower, and a little stiff legged. He was better when I was home for Christmas, running around and perky. But shortly after I came back to school he took a bad turn. After a series of ups and downs, he stopped eating, and wouldn’t get up, so Mom took him in to the vet. They gave him a shot and he just laid his head down on his paws and went to sleep. She buried him in the Iris patch in our yard. My Half Moon died on the full moon. When my mom called to tell me about it I knew it was Halfy and her first words were, “I’ve lost my shadow.” Just as I, as a child would trail my mom around everywhere, so would Halfy, in my absence, be so close at her heels she often tripped over him.

I didn’t really think much about putting Halfy into the picture, in fact I barely noticed him, until I was looking up who Anubis was. I was so touched by the midwives birthing chant used by Anita Diamant in The Red Tent that I included it in my poem which really needed that healthy container to hold it. The chant brings to the forefront the power of that moment of life and death, so beautifully, as only art can, in necessary relation to people, place, divinity, and universality. Music, poetry, painting, dance, theatre, all art forms possess the magical ability to make pain and suffering beautiful as they are woven into a larger tapestry. Art can offer context, meaning, and depth by connecting immediate experience to universal and mythic themes, thus reminding us, in times of despair, that the world has been through this before and will go through this again, we are not alone and there is hope. Furthermore, through symbol, images, sounds, and emotions art also has the power to bypass the conscious mind and address the unconscious directly.

It is here that the true shifts are made. Our conscious reasons are often just rationalizations for the demands of the unconscious. Consciousness unfolds from the unconscious in more ways that we know. The unconscious demands and consciousness can learn from it or fight it. This capacity of art to incite revolution by ushering unconscious drives into the conscious milieu makes art essential for this time when the Earth and humanity hang so delicately in the balance, where so much emphasis is placed on goals and efficiency that the magic of the process and the moment is often lost or violently neglected.

So in wanting to more fully understand the words in this birthing chant I decided to see who Anubis this “gentle companion” was. And I found that he is an Egyptian God of mortuary. Wow. That means that as the women chanted for courage and strength in labor, they were also accepting the possibility of death that was always so close at the door. They were saying, “fear not, death is gentle.” Not in resignation, but in courage for whatever might come. How perfect this chant is for all the moments of death and rebirth, of constraint and creativity which are the labors of our lives.

Furthermore, Anubis takes the form of a black dog. I’d painted him into my artwork without even knowing it. Anubis is often portrayed standing next to the scale where the heart is weighed against a golden feather as one enters the after-life. It should be neither too heavy nor too light. Neither too constrained, nor too unconcerned. My mom taught me the value of responsible constraint, within which Halfy showed me the freedom and joy it contained. Thus, as Halfy helped me maintain the balance of lightheartedness and connection, so too does he pave my way to the next world.

Lord grant me the strength to change the things I can,
the serenity to accept the things I can’t,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sources:

Coelho, Paulo. The Alchemist. HarperSanFrancisco. New York, NY. 1994.

Diamant, Anita. The Red Tent. Picador USA. New York, NY. 1997

Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of the Gods: Over 2,500 Deities of the World. Facts on
File, Inc. New York, NY. 1993.

Spretnak, Charlene. The Resurgence of the Real: Body Nature and Place in a
Hypermodern World. Routledge. New York. 1997.

Swimme, Brian. The Universe Story. HarperSanFrancisco. NewYork, NY. 1993.

This was a midterm paper for “Art and Cultural Transformation” with Professors Tricia Grame and Dr. Mara Keller at California Institute of Integral Studies

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