It was 1971. I was sitting on the grass at the east entrance to the University of Arizona. I had in my hands a copy of Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse, and was leaning back against the base of the UofA sign, reading. I wasn’t in school; I was just there. Tucson wasn’t home anymore; I was just there. The air was hot and dry, pleasant if you’re used to it. But I felt like flotsam, jettisoned and left there by the storm which was the sixties.
I paused at a sentence in the book. A vivid memory had intervened, called up by the turmoil inside Harry Haller, Steppenwolf’s main character.
On October 21, 1967, 50,000 people marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. I was in that seething mass of dissidents. We crossed a great expanse of grass, and finally stood, gazing up at the imposing outside wall. We were exultant. I was exultant, too.. and yet, my heart was divided.
The march happened when I was still in art school at Syracuse. A friend told me about it, and said I could go with him. My parents, meanwhile, were in Tucson, watching it happen on television. Weeks later, when I was home for Christmas, my father said he was very proud of me. He’d always taken a principled stand against the idea of war, but he wasn’t against self-defense. He taught me how to box, and cheered me on sometimes when I wrestled in high school.
William Barrett, in his brilliant book, Time of Need - Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (’72) writes on Hesse:
“Forty or fifty years before the hippie culture was to erupt among us, Hesse was its prophet— even down to the Oriental trappings with which it fits itself out. And rereading him now should help us to see what the revolt of today’s youth is really about. It is only secondarily political. Sometimes political causes are grasped only in order to externalize or objectify the more nameless malaise within. At bottom, however obscurely grasped, the revolt is for some psychological and spiritual wholeness which our civilization seems…to frustrate.”
Barrett calls it “one part of Hesse’s message that his youthful admirers tend to forget. His theme is the polarity that divides human nature.”
Barrett later says:
“Some children repeat the lives of their parents, even down to omitting all those things the parents themselves avoided…Other children, and they are fewer, seem driven to search out and experience the unlived life of their parents. These are the voyages of discovery that broaden the mind and enrich the spirit..”
For me, this is getting much closer to what was happening. The sixties were “only secondarily political.” There were profound changes going on. Everything was changing. I recall thrilling to the electricity in the air. And it didn’t just involve the young. It effected everyone.
It was like everybody suddenly sensed how wonderful it was to be alive. Nobody needed to justify their existence anymore! Admittedly, it was apprehended partly through the use of certain substances which became widely available, but, nevertheless, people were beginning to discover dimensions to their lives which they never knew existed, had never experienced before.
It seems like a bit of an aside at this point, but.. is it any wonder that a person, who may be just awakening to the marvel which is their life, would balk at the idea of being shipped off to fight a seemingly absurd war and thereafter very possibly be returned home in a body bag? Brief rewind to the march on the Pentagon.
But, like I said, there was more going on than this for me. My political activism was somehow only an exterior event. The sixties had to do with creative freedom, an inward change. My experience in life, limited though it was, told me that — creativity was where the energy was.
I heard it in the amazing music. I saw it in the trembling beauty of paintings. I drank it up in the passionate and diversely intelligent conversations I was having. I felt it pulsing through me as I started getting much more serious about my own work: in drawing, painting and, starting to write my own songs. The atmosphere was charged.
Horrific stories of the Vietnam war were constantly in the news. I was finding it so hard to stay focused on my schoolwork. I began to be constantly aware of the marital problems my parents were having. It pained me deeply. I was starting to consider dropping out, and not just from school. I knew, however, that I would be up for the draft as soon as I did. And throughout all this, I was becoming increasingly aware of aggravated divisions within me. Remember Harry Haller? Of course, the drugs only exacerbated the conflict. What divisions you say?
I’m learning now that Hesse, like myself, was a preacher’s kid. His parents, whom he honored and respected, were missionaries in India (which lends Siddhartha whole new added meaning). Young Hesse was a disciplined, educated and reasonable young man. But he desired to explore different territory. Whereas his parents hoped their son would embrace the ordered life of the theological seminary, he was drawn to spontaneity and emotion, intuition and instinct — the realm of poetry and art.
But, as Barrett describes so masterfully, Hesse was not willing to wholly cast off the values of his parents, which he, albeit reservedly, still honored. He chose a life that embraced what I describe as the necessary tension of contending opposites.. like wrestling.
In high school, I was a wrestler. I was familiar with its code. You were required to accept the premise of the match: the necessary tension of grappling with another wrestler who earnestly sought to gain the advantage over you. It was a dialogue, a fierce conversation.
My coach taught the art of “finesse wrestling.”According to this method, one trained oneself to counter any unwise moves on the part of one’s opponent with swift, decisive counter-moves. Skilled practitioners of this wrestling style were beautiful to behold. They never tried to bully their adversaries.
I was also on Tucson High’s 1965 undefeated state championship football team. It was an tremendous experience, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud to have been on that awesome team. But football is much different from wrestling. On the gridiron, you sought to be faster than, or simply overpower your opponent. There was beauty in that game, too. It just didn't have the same.. grace.
We're going through some tough times now. What we need is a new myth. I choose wrestling as the more compelling myth, in which adversaries step onto the mat as equals, accept the incumbent tension of the situation, and proceed to engage in a heated dialogue. Now there’s an honorable contest.
And, if we take this further, ideally.. it’s a myth in which we actually both love and respect our opponent—that is, if there’s honor in the game. So, let us celebrate opposition. After all, there’s plenty to go around. The world is rife with it.
Let us return to William Barrett, whose contention is that most of Hermann Hesse’s admirers miss the ultimate point he makes in Steppenwolf (and all his other novels as well) concerning the conflict between opposites, which is that
“Victory cannot belong to either side. One force cannot conquer the other without also eventually inflicting defeat upon itself…Man is condemned to live forever in the tension of…opposites; but his salvation lies in maintaining not civil war, but a fruitful dialogue between them.”
Of course, this can’t be the end of this conversation. Numerous questions remain. Is it really so that victory cannot belong to either side? Does this have to do with all competition, with each and every conflict? I would not be completely comfortable with a “yes” answer to that question. After all, what would that say about our entire western way of life?
I think there are some wars which must be won. But, and here I’m trying to get at a more nuanced view of this conjectural battle...to look through a different lens.
I’ve proposed the myth of wrestling because for me it relates to the creative process, which is something I’m passionate about. I’ve been trying to ascertain if a fierce conversation between opponents, even enemies, could ever be seen as worthy engagement, could ever become “fruitful” dialogue?
Only if it results in something surprising, welcome and entirely unexpected. Then there’s honor in the game. I wonder. Is there still.. any honor in the game?
I continue to reflect on the time my father and I drove out to Old Tucson and visited the set of Heaven with a Gun, a western movie starring Glenn Ford. I'm not saying it was a great movie, but it continues to carry great import for me.
The text for the film poster reads like this...
Certain questions spring immediately to mind like “How can this be?” or “How could an artist ever, conceivably…KILL !?” I wish to look at how the plot of the movie relates to the creative process, so please bear with me as I make the following comparison:
Glenn Ford’s character, Jim Killian, wants to leave the life of a gunman and become a preacher. With his gun, Killian had always been able to put a stop to things, to wrap things up...with his "peacemaker." Hence, the messier, more difficult process of peacefully resolving conflict was efficiently avoided. But now, after a lifetime of such easy solutions, he found himself eschewing the gun. His heart was gripped by an inchoate vision - he desired something more.
A skilled painter can kill as well - but with a brush instead of a gun. If the artist relies on technique alone when faced with the challenge of what direction to take, if they, too, desire something more - whether they're facing a blank canvas or a particularly problematic work-in-progress - the ready brush, or perhaps the sharpened pencil can, like the drawn six-shooter, effectively “put a stop to things.” Very often, this can (not in every case certainly, but frequently enough) prevent the emergence of THE NEW.
And isn't that the whole point? It certainly was the whole point for Jim Killian. He was not accustomed to being a man of God. Non-violent conflict resolution was completely new territory for him.
This is how it should be for the artist as well. It's the whole point of creativity. If what results from the "creative" process is not wholly new, then we shouldn't be using the word creative in conjunction with it.
We can't create out of nothing, but what we do create must never have existed before, or we may as well slip once again back into melancholy and call what we do re-presentation, or, as Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his book on Howard Hodgkins, says “..all representational art is melancholic. To represent is, literally, to re-present. It is to attempt to reincarnate a moment, something seen and felt, that is already in the past. It is an attempt to bring back something that is irretrievably gone.”
We're all up against it here. The world is a closed system. Despite our efforts to open up an aperture and bring something new through the cracks, most of the time we just slip back into re-presenting. It's a cosmic struggle; for, by defintion, the "new," unless you've seen a vision, is something never seen before. It's at best only vaguely envisioned, like a vaporous dream. It has no precedent. If we knew what a "work of art" was going to be, why would we even begin? But, isn't that how it should be? The artist cannot see what their work will be. I don't believe God does, either, and I think that's been his mysterious and wonderful intention all along. In a related sense, artists cannot comprehend what they're doing. What results from creative work MUST be a joyous surprise - to both God and man.
The greatest dreams are elusive and only partially formed. The experienced artist knows this. Each time you begin to create, having only a compelling, albeit indefinite vision, all you can do is set the stage for its emergence. Then what you must do is try to woo it. The artist, in this sense, must court surprise. However, if at this critical juncture you draw your “gun,” instead of letting yourself experience the awkwardness of not-knowing-quite-how-to-go-about-this, you may KILL the work, or merely re-present what’s been seen before.
So how do we avoid this? It seems to me the answer has to do with how we use our gun. It’s very important to know when it’s best to keep it in the holster. I’m not against the use of one’s skills - I have a hard-won few that I’m glad are available for use. But the creative act is less about what an artist can do and more about what they’re open to finding out. It’s less about what we have and more about what we’re reaching for.
All of this is quite difficult. It certainly requires a sense of security, a modicum sense of who you are. Otherwise, you'll just "go for the gun."
I mean, Jim Killian knew he was fast at the draw. He was confident of that. Over the years he had spent many hours practicing and had gotten damn good at it, if he said so himself.
But he was seeking something larger and deeper, a dimension he hadn’t yet tasted.
To answer another question raised by the film poster, yes, I do believe it’s possible for an artist to make a masterpiece. However, just a moment, please. One of the dictionary definitions I found for masterpiece was “the best piece of work by a particular artist or craftsperson.”
Let’s be real here - there are masterpieces and..there are masterpieces. The “best” piece of work by a particular artist may still be mediocre in the grand scheme of things. It might merely be the fastest draw in the life of yet another run-of-the-mill gunslinger, business as usual.
Neither the world nor the artist would or should be seeking that result.
In the dog-eat-dog world of competition, whether you're a "successful artist" or a famous gunslinger, you always have to be looking over your shoulder, because, sooner or later someone’s going to show up who is faster on the draw. Then you’re dead meat. However, true creative work is not haunted by these phantoms. By definition it is unassailable, because it results in what is always both unique and irreplaceable.
There is, and can be, in this case, no contest
Nicolas Berdyaev said, “Creativeness is always a growth, an addition, the making of something new that had not existed in the world before.” He also said “Creativity is the only thing that adds.” It’s a breakthrough. More than simply a development, it's an addition.
Allow me to share a memorable milestone for me:
I’d been working for several months on a painting I call Mowing the Lawn. The central character in the piece, a man smoking a pipe, is mowing his lawn. I drew the image from an ad in a fifties-era issue of Popular Mechanics. To me it perfectly typified the contented homeowner caring for his property. Then I had the idea of surrounding the seemingly oblivious fellow with a jungle teeming with dinosaurs and dangerous beasts. These I drew from film stills and old monster magazines.
For months I worked and worked on the painting, but even though I rendered everything pretty much as I wanted to render it, I ended up in a state of utter frustration, exclaiming “So what!!” There was nothing new about it. I’d seen it all before. The piece struck me as singularly unsatisfying. It "didn't work."
I decided that I needed to really wrestle with the thing, So, in a storm of emotion, I yanked it out to my backyard, (which, by the way, is also very much a New Jersey jungle), mixed up a strange brew of black oil paint, mineral spirits and water and started to throw the mix onto the canvas with sticks, brushes and rags. Thank you, Jackson!
At length, I stood back aghast, thinking I might have destroyed the work altogether. But in the end, I realized that I'd saved it. Something surprising happened when I reached beyond my recalcitrant capabilities.
So again..do we artists really know how to kill? Oh, yes. We are especially capable of doing so. And why is that? As in the case of Jim Killian, it’s because we’re so damned skillful.
Now, how on earth did we get this way?!
We’re taught in school to hone our skills. And, unfortunately, it's during that early educative season of life that we begin to doubt our wonder-struck "childish" creative work, comparing these marvels to the work of "mature, skillful artists.” Nothing kills like these comparisons.
I still hear the echoes: “Oh, that's g-o-o-d! I wish I could draw like that.” or “That’s doesn’t look anything like...” or “Wow! Great job. You should get an A+. It looks almost like a photograph!”
And so we go on like this, in a sort of trance, marching toward a shimmering mirage in the distance. William Barrett, in his brilliant book on the philosophical basis for the idea of method or "technique," calls this mirage The Illusion of Technique. We keep shambling zombie-like toward the apparition, meanwhile, as the years go by, getting too skillful for our own good.
And, of course we’re egged on and celebrated along the way. How pleasurable it is when people praise us! Pride rises up. We start to “believe our own press.”
We've entered the savage world. Alas, not only do we find ourselves conforming to its rules, we begin to compare ourselves with others in the game
I still remain divided about the value of competition, grades, scorecards, rankings... we develop an interest in keeping score, for carving notches in the handle of our gun, to keep track of how we're doing, our record of KILLS. When we fall into that trap, we find that we always need to be looking over our shoulder for the inevitable threat of another young gunslinger. As soon as we begin keeping score, we’re fair game.
Do you recall how strange it was when you got your first report card? My memory of it is that it becomes increasingly difficult to rest in the knowledge of who you are and what you’re becoming, let alone to see others clearly, and honor and respect them for who they are. We begin to see everything through the distorted lens of comparison, pride, and ambition.
So how do we avoid this trap? Like Jim Killian, in every new work, we must continue to desire something broader and deeper than what wrong-headed education has encouraged us to seek, something greater than what our familiar skills have produced so far, As William Wordsworth reminded us, "Heaven lies about us...we still can hear its voices..." Heaven on Earth is the dimension we seek. We must "break on through to the other side," although I would say to Jim Morrison if I could that then the other side becomes this side as well..
Creativity, as Berdyaev attests, is the only thing that adds. Every other human activity simply shifts things around, or re-presents them in a different context. In this world, this side of Heaven, there is nothing new under the sun. But,the new can only be brought forth by a creative act.
I find myself thinking of Jackson Pollock. His painting process has often been called an “arena.” He would circle his canvas like a wrestler or bullfighter. He took immense risks with every piece. In my view, he was always grappling with the paradox we all face. He knew he had achieved exciting results in the past. He even had a rough idea how he’d achieved them, BUT..he kept pushing himself forward into strange territory, where he didn’t know what he was doing. That is why he did such astonishing work.
There are others. I know the following list will be only partial, and I know I will probably forget to include people who should be on it, but I want to mention a few of those whose consistent efforts to break through barriers impacted me greatly:
My father, Gilbert S Zimmerman, my mother, Belle Zimmerman, my resilient brother and sister, Michael and Georgia, my luminous, courageous wife, Robin Mercedes Zimmerman, my brave, creative children, Matthew and Amber and their faithful spouses, and all my grandchildren, Magnus, Enzo, Isabella, Julian, and Abram, Robert Illes, Scott and Ellie Snedeker, Francis & Pam Lagielski, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Klee, Marsden Hartley, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Charles Burchfield, Richard Pousette-Dart, Chaim Soutine, Wassily Kandinsky, J.M.W. Turner, Lee Krasner, Emily Carr, Ludwig Meidner, Maurice Vlaminck, André Derain, Howard Hodgkin, Fern Coppedge, Jack Melrose, David Robinson, Roderick and Linda Smith, Tony and Jane Tuck, Blair and Linda Stevenson, Byron Renderer, Steve Bakunas, Tim McAllister, Leon Goodenough, Dennis Childers, Todd Fadel (especially when he worked with Matt Zimmerman), Bob Sable, Tony Jones, Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles Ives, Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Television, Lenny Smith, Daniel & Elin Smith, Josh and Kory Stamper, Frank Zappa, Harvey Kurtzman, Forrest J. Ackerman, Georges Méliès, Walt Disney, Paul Blaisdell, Jack Arnold, George Pal, Val Lewton, Merian C. Cooper, Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Eiji Tsuburaya, Hiyao Miyazaki, Terrence Mallick, Jim Jarmusch, The Marx Bros, Laurel & Hardy, Tom Rankin, Malachi Matcho, oh, and Ed Wood, Jr. Quite a mix, huh?
Many times they failed, days in which they could not wrest the new from the ether. But they were seized by an inchoate vision, being no longer satisfied with what they knew could be done they pressed on. Every failure to break through, every easy dispatch made them sad. They craved something much more, something akin to standing near where a shaft of light might shoot through a crack in the distant hills. They desired to witness how it would suddenly illumine previously unseen shapes.
They sought to position themselves well, so they could respond quickly and lithely to the newly limned dimensions being revealed. They were poised to respond. It was their destiny to take part in the co-creation of a whole new world.
Jim Killian was tired of the gun and its fruits. After all, he was a preacher. He loved the Lord now, and fervently led his congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. Sure, he loved the earth. Sometimes the earth did require the service of a skilled gunman. But, now that he included heaven in the mix, and it was a puzzling mix to be sure. He was finding that, to triumph here, in this new era of elevated concerns, he saw it as absolutely necessary that his Earth become “as it is in Heaven.”
My dad taught me to love the “oaters” when we lived in San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles. After the extensive work he always did preparing sermons and then preaching them every Sunday, he would come home tired, turn on the television set, relax in his chair, and watch The Lone Ranger, The Three Mesquiteers, Hopalong Cassidy, or some other hard-riding, hard-fightin’ star like Kermit Maynard or Buck Jones. Of course, there were also the singing cowboys. One of my earliest memories was Gene Autry in Phantom Empire, which combined western, musical and science-fiction elements.
On “family days,” in the fifties and very early sixties, Dad liked to take us out to the Simi Valley area where the westerns were filmed. Corriganville was a town they had built on the property of Ray “Crash” Corrigan. Ray, along with Bob Livingstone and Max Terhune, was one of The Three Mesquiteers. He was also the guy who was inside the terrifying alien suit in It, the Terror from Beyond Space.
Corriganville Movie Ranch was open to the public on weekends. All around it, of course, was country very familiar to my imagination. Its roads wound through low-lying oaks which cowboys jumped up into or leapt out of, past magnificent rocks which they clambered over or used as cover to shoot from. I loved climbing around this terrain. Later it made watching the movies even more exciting.
One weekend that we went, I saw Robert J. Wilke standing by his car in the parking lot. You'd recognize him if you saw a photo. He was the guy who fought with Kirk Douglas when water was flooding into the Nautilus at the climax of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I’m guessing he might have been out there working on Have Gun Will Travel, which was also shot there.
In 1963 Tucson, we lived on Painted Hills Road, which intersects West Speedway beyond the edge of town. It was actually the only house my parents ever owned. Before that they had inhabited a string of parsonages going back to the first days of their marriage.
I loved it out there. We kids used to catch the bus to school right at the corner of Painted Hills Road and Speedway. The rolling hills all around were thickly populated with cacti, stands of saguaro, ocotilla, prickly pear, barrel, and the tenacious cholla. Of course, there were also rattlesnakes and scorpions to watch out for, as well as prairie dogs, roadrunners, herds of javelina and more. Marvelous stuff! We saw a bobcat in our driveway soon after moving in, and my brother, Mike soon brought a tarantula home in a jar from the arroyo near our house.
Things had changed. Before, in California, I rode my bike on a regular basis on city streets, delivering newspapers and hauling my skimboard to the beach. Now that I was a desert dweller, I did my riding on dirt roads, to explore my new turf, and get in shape for football and wrestling.
One day I biked up into the mountains behind my house, out Speedway and over Gates Pass, a low ridge at the western edge of the Tucson basin. On the other side you could see Old Tucson on the plain below, constructed for the Columbia picture Arizona in 1940. It was built to look like the mud-adobe town Tucson used to be.
As the years went by Old Tucson had been further developed. It was a picturesque replica of a western town, complete with raised wooden sidewalks, a grandiose hotel and saloon, a sheriff’s office, blacksmith’s shop, old white-washed Spanish-style church and, of course, dirt streets to handle both stagecoach and horse traffic, complete with tethering posts and water troughs.
In my case, I didn’t need a horse. I looped down over the pass, scooted left into an arroyo which crossed the road, hid my trusty bike behind a mesquite tree..and quietly walked into the back side of the movie lot.
I have a friend from Tucson High, whom I played football with there, whose parents, the Sheltons, owned Old Tucson. I remember a hallway in his house lined with photos of Robert Shelton with John Wayne (Rio Bravo), Kirk Douglas (Gunfight at O.K. Corral), Jimmy Stewart (Winchester 73) and other stars. When I recently talked to my old friend on the phone and told him about my going in the back way, he said, “You owe me!” It was a justifiable reaction on his part, as well as a good reason to laugh together.
In 1968, Heaven with a Gun, a western starring Glenn Ford was about to be filmed at Old Tucson. My father had been contacted by someone from the press about posing for a publicity shot. They thought it would excite interest locally if they photographed a real preacher from present-day Tucson shaking hands with Ford, who would portray the gunman-turned-preacher in the film. Dad asked me if I wanted to go. “Sure,” I said.
I’ve never seen Heaven with a Gun. But Glenn Ford is not the important figure in this piece. Oh, I met him that day, yes, but he seemed like kind of a jerk. To be fair, maybe he thought I was a teenage punk. Not to digress, though.
My father has always been the hero of the story for me. Like Ford’s character, he always strove to stand up for the dignity of others. So, it strikes me as particularly poignant that he chose to leave his wife and children at the same time he was posing for that publicity shot at Old Tucson. The Zimmerman family was going through a period of great structural stress. 1662 Painted Hills Road would turn out to be the last place we lived as an intact family. This particular family crisis culminated in Dad making the decision leave the ministry, move back to California, and divorce my mother soon thereafter. Except for this one egregious case, I believe my father usually fought a noble fight in life.
I still maintain that, in one way or another, he was always engaged in what had been for him a lifelong struggle with the reality of death. The death of his father when he was 6 in Duluth, Minnesota was something he could never wholly accept. I think he was always haunted by it.
Speaking of being haunted, he also liked to take our family to visit ghost towns. The most memorable for me was our trip to Bodie, a ghost town east of Yosemite near the Nevada line, still preserved today “in a state of arrested decay.” I recall my parents being careful to tell us how we should take care where we stepped around the old buildings, so we wouldn’t fall through a rotten floor and be sorry.
Bodie was indeed a haunting place. But in a related sense, so were Corriganville and Old Tucson. They were reminders of the inevitable transience of life and the ever-present specter of death. In 1995, a tragic fire consumed much of Old Tucson. We visited recently, but it was closed. The familiar mountain one sees in all the films, however, still looms over the scene. You could feel the presence of everything that had taken place there.
Such spots are the repositories of myth, symbols of our quest for a fresh realization of life passed by too quickly.
Emile Zola wrote that through art we “objectify the subjective,” that art is "the exteriorization of an idea.” It could be that when I was visiting these ghost towns I began to see some of the ideas I was meant to exteriorize. I began to encounter the compelling realm of myth and symbol. As a boy growing up where people were busy giving their dreams shape, so near Hollywood, which was often called a “dream factory,” something stirred deeply in my imagination.
I wasn’t convinced... I’ve NEVER been convinced that life was as it appeared outwardly to be, in the streets and neighborhoods where I lived. Everyday life wasn't telling me the whole story.
Civilization has a way of shielding us from the uncomfortable but revelatory reality of death.
A person can only see its secrets if he makes a myth of it somehow, to facilitate the looking. I’m still trying to exteriorize its hiddenness through creative work. Otherwise one might as well just be strolling down a nondescript street peering through the windows of other people’s houses.
I create to disclose life.
And so this time I've told a tale of ghost towns. I'm very much like my father. He wouldn’t settle for the way things appeared to be, either. From the day his dad died when he was 6 I think he lived on the edge, where meaning is sometimes brought into focus by the proximity of death.
As Nicolas Berdyaev says, “The fact of death alone gives true depth to the question as to the meaning of life. Life in this world has meaning just because there is death.”
I never lived in one city long enough for these things to catch up with me..is that it? But it was inevitable that necessity would catch up with me. Why?! Does it just inevitably descend upon as you “mature”? Are such concerns normal ? Crap like “We don’t have enough money to pay the bills, or much worse crap like “Did you hear what so-and-so said about so-and-so?” or “How do you like that pastor of ours? Did you notice how he’s trying to allow more colored people into our nice congregation!?” Not to mention all the anxiety, innuendo, and jealousy that goes on in the unspoken realm all the time anywhere, even in churches.
No, I consider myself very blessed to have remained unobservant in this setting, and I think also in other situations very much like this, whether it be in high school, workplace or neighborhood. I’m so glad I was able to remain unobservant much of the time. I can’t say that I remained as able to not notice things in high school, however. And things deteriorated even more after that in college. Nevertheless, throughout my life, I think my overall focus has been somewhat different from many people around me. I looked through the eyes and heard through the ears which I was given very early,
Which begs for a more detailed description of my experience in church. If I wasn’t noticing the petty (if they weren’t also tragic) things which went on all the time around me, just what was it that I was taking in?
I was noticing that God was irresistibly present and real, that his love was radiant, warm and full of energy. I could sense that his love was for all of us, each concrete personality, and that the suffusing presence we found ourselves experiencing was full of both beauty and surprise.
Day by day, life was shaping up to look very much worth living.
What remains pertinent to my life as an artist is how I began to see that spirituality was a palpable reality. It was NOT cut off from the realm of sound, and taste, and sight and touch. All the sense aspects of the material world were infused with a surging energy, like marvelous waves of a brilliant sea, beckoning me to swim in it.
In the midst of these experiences, every week I would intone the following words along with the entire congregation, each of us at various stages of life and mind, whether we were challenged and uptight about life, or gently open like flowers to catch the sun’s rays. Young and old, skeptical or accepting, whether our state of heart was one of abject existential pain or ecstatic belief, all of us together reading from the hymnal or confessing from memory..the core of it was:
We believe in God the Father, infinite in wisdom, power and love, whose mercy is over all his works, and whose mercy is over all his works, and whose will is ever directed to his children’s good.
We believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of man, the gift of the Father’s unfailing grace , the ground of our hope, and the promise of our deliverance from sin and death.
We believe in the Holy Spirit as the divine presence in our lives, whereby we are kept in perpetual remembrance of the truth of Christ, and find strength and help in time of need.
We believe that this faith should manifest itself in the service of love as set forth in the example of our blessed Lord, to the end that the kingdom of God may come upon the earth. Amen
My experience speaking these words was, and still is, a powerful, deeply assuring experience. In the midst of this confession of faith I lack nothing, except.. perhaps an active, continuing creative participation in the emergence of the Kingdom.
And for me, it all started back there when I was a child in church.
What I eagerly drank in streamed through the stained glass - light, shining through saturated color, making each color brighter than the vivid pigments fired into the glass.
And I can only begin to describe how it reached me through the music, music that wasn’t driven like the music I would encounter later in life. Even though I confess to a deep love and affection for rock n’ roll, especially during the hurtling sixties, this early encounter with hymns in church had a deeper-rooted effect on me.
Rock n’ roll was moving and beautiful, but it drew its energy mostly with the way life surged and always kept escaping. It was music about the way my body was changing, and the way I began to look outside myself at the way others looked and how they regarded me. It was extremely self-conscious music,
Rock n' roll celebrated the sexual. I had no problem with that. From age 13 to age 20 I loved sex. But sex didn’t love me back. Sex was a moving target. It promised much, thrilled briefly, and then always, always left.
It resulted not in my own fulfillment, but resulted in the birth of yet another complex and wonderful being. A bad infinity, as Berdyaev calls it. Both my parents are dead, and my children, bless their hearts, have their own lives. And so do their kids. So much for evanescence and rock n’ roll.
But the music which I experienced in church was singular in its multidimensional presence. It always seemed to hold me and know me. It was always in motion but never left. It was music wherein people’s voices were each distinctly pivotal to its structure, yet at the same time each was one with a total sound being made. It was music that responded to God’s love and gloried in it.
This music, and the sound of my father's grand, exultant singing voice have continued to connect me with a realm far kinder than this one. That's why I hope I can yet tend to not notice the discordant, driving noise of the world. I DO want to still notice his magnificent love. When I begin to feel misunderstood, forgotten and old, the realm I've been speaking of reminds me that.. He will never leave me nor forsake me.
I’d like to continue on about my early memory of church. I think I’ve mentioned before how my recollections of life in the parsonage merge with church memories. As the minister’s son, I was there so much of the time that life in the church and at the home were for me all one thing.
What don’t I remember, however? What didn’t I notice? What do grown-ups generally concern themselves with? The mechanics of things, various mature mutterings and soft-spoken consultations. There were also manifold unspoken exchanges.
I thrived in the atmosphere. I’d say that there was a generous amount of genuine goodwill spread about, but unfortunately, there were also other things afoot..tensions, innuendos, furtive glances. Today I’m thinking how glad I am that I didn’t notice this sort of thing. But I did notice a whole lot, and it could have been because I wasn’t geared to being cognizant of the other stuff.
Oh, MAYBE I picked up on it. Although, like I said, I was mostly conscious of the beauty I encountered, perhaps I felt the ugly goings-on subconsciously. It must be said that my parents, especially my mother, worked very hard to shield us from unpleasant things. Besides, they weren’t the things that I really wanted to think about. I was taking in something else.
It hurts to say it, but, while the adults busied themselves with grown-up concerns, I think maybe I was noticing what many of them were beginning to stop noticing. As we “progress” onward in life we start to forget the realm of light we used to know. It’s like drifting to another side of knowing. We accumulate different data. Wordsworth said it well: “Wonder is exchanged for common day.” I’m glad now for those early years, when I wasn’t yet snarled in commonplace concerns.
After all, it wasn’t up to me to keep everything running. Like my wife says to me now, “You didn’t have to do anything. The adults did all the work.” It’s true. It takes a lot of work keeping a church going. I did have a few jobs, although they weren’t much. I mowed the church lawn when I was about 12. Big deal. Concerning the everyday operations of both the church and home, all was pretty much taken care of.
Meanwhile, I just drank in the rich presence of the place. Bear with me. I’ll try to get to the heart of the matter: my being drawn to beauty and how it nurtured my calling as an artist. To speak more adequately of this, Nicolas Berdyaev once said, “Beauty is not only the aim of art - it is the aim of life. And the final aim is not beauty as cultural value, but beauty as being itself, that is the transformation of the chaotic deformity of the world into the beauty of the cosmos.”
One of my favorite things to do, was to slip inside the sanctuary when it was empty. I’d talk quietly to myself in the palpable hush, saying things like, “This is my father’s church and I am his son. This is MY church.” One day I clambered up the inside of the steeple and wrote my name on a spot as high up as I could climb.
I guess this all might sound a bit self-involved, but please be patient with me. I’m trying to examine what my experience was from a perspective that might shed light on something which continues to be a persistent dilemma to me. Why is it that we take these deep draughts of primal reality less and less as we get older? Is it simply because we get busy with other things, things it seems like we have to get busy with, because we feel like we “need” to take on more and more responsibility? It’s like we’re putting on big, cumbersome suits we weren't really meant to wear.
I still hear voices like “Why don’t you help? Can’t you see the world needs to be fixed? Why don’t you take some responsibility for it? How can you justify spending so much of your time painting or playing music?” I'm grateful that Berdyaev spoke of how creativity is in itself justifying, rather than something which needs justification.
Today my wife was backing out of our driveway and she almost ran over our lawnmower. I’d been getting ready to mow the front lawn and left it too near the back of our car. She asked me to please not ever do it again. In situations like this, she’ll often say to me, “You’re not very observant, you know.” And I have to admit, in one sense she’s right. In that one sense, there’s no excuse for it. I don’t notice a LOT of stuff. But, in another sense, and in order to tell the whole story, I need to emphasize something: when you’re a person called to creative work, you tend to linger on certain things and remain singularly oblivious to a multitude of other things.
Now that I’m reflecting back on how I developed as an artist, I’m seeing that there have always been things which I’ve been subconsciously more than willing to NOT notice. I think now that maybe this not-noticing, this oblivion, if you will, has allowed me to remain in a state of unsullied confidence in God my entire life.
How so? I think it’s because what I WAS absorbed in were the wonders of life and the creativity these compelling thing drew out of me. It had to do with the kind, magnificent Spirit, with whom I was very familiar. It was the poetry of the Spirit which kept my attention.
Meanwhile, the things I remained incognizant of didn’t trip me up. Sad to say, they’re the concerns that do so often stumble people, and keep them from noticing what I’d like to call the reality behind the noise.
When they only notice the dissonant aspects of life, they often just get angry. They take offense. It’s tragic that they often lose their trust in God in these situations, rather than just learn how repellent, as well as noble, the acts of free men can be. As the years go by, and a person inevitably encounters the antinomies of life, they either learn wisdom and accept the inevitable paradox of existence in this world, or they join the many who opt for a less painful path. As is aptly described by the following phrase, they often take a simple-minded approach to the quandary and “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
It’s amazing to me how much knowledge my wife has. She’s an incredibly intelligent person, And she also remembers a lot from her childhood. She’ll often tell me about something she recalls, and then turn to me asking, “What do YOU remember about blah blah blah?” Often I’ll turn to her and say, “I don’t remember anything about that.” Then she’ll say, “Boy, you don’t remember much, do you?” There have been times when this really bothered me. It made me wonder if part of my memory bank was eroding, from having taken too many drugs during the sixties, perhaps. Or I mutter, “It’s just because I’m an artist.”
Wow. What a cop-out this declaration feels like to me now. Maybe it’s because it's altogether too succinct a summary, or, it's because, more and more I’m thinking how glad I am..to be able to remember what I remember, and glad that there’s also a lot I’ve either forgotten or never knew in the first place.
Confession of Faith
June 30, 2016
I would say that the reason people reject the Christian faith is that what they see demonstrated is only a vapid or pernicious social construct, like family values or law and order. It is presented to them as a mental concept rather than a living experience. It’s no wonder people reject it.
But sadly, they do so only to turn around and flee to another conventionality. As it turns out there are ism’s for everyone, schools of thought to fit any persuasion.
The church manifests itself primarily as a organization driven by economic necessity. If it didn’t, the church would be forced to close its doors, ministers would have to get jobs like other people, and Christians would have to find out what this new life is all about.
Allow me to say that it is different for me. I still know God loves me and knows me like no other being does. I don’t care how pathetic the church gets. I don’t care how unconvincing its witness becomes. Oh, I’d like things to be different, but it won’t change what I personally know to be true.
I experienced the living Christ in my heart as a boy. And it was in church while I was singing a hymn. Words fail me here. I cannot describe how palpably real and immediate this sense of God’s love was for me.
Fortunately for me, I wasn’t burdened down with the necessities inherent in being a church adult. Like my wife says, all the jobs were done for me. I didn't have to raise the funds needed to pay the pastor. I didn’t have to raise the money needed to pay for the building we were gathering in. I didn’t have to cook the food, or wash the dishes used at the potlucks.
I was young enough not to have the slightest suspicion what these concerns were. I just sidled up to the table, ate the food and drank in the spirit. And my,my did it taste sweet!
Some say I just made up the part about God, or wasn't thinking for myself. Bullshit. Not so. I don’t care what they say. I know in my knower.
The rest of the story of my life would be baseless if I didn’t affirm this. I DID experience God’s love for me. I DID experience the beauty and majesty of the creative spirit. Nothing can separate me from these things.
May 31, 2016
Oh, I forgot..there’s something I need to describe before I go on to anything else.
I had never been to school. My first day of kindergarten was where my education started. My parents said I had to go. Mom drove the car over with me in the back seat.
I knew right away something was up - big changes, the beginning of my “development” as a person, as an artist. Mom told me I’d like it, but I wasn’t at all sure. Maybe I didn’t want to be taught. Maybe I liked relying on what I already knew. Maybe I liked hangin’ a little loose.
When we pulled up in front of the long, squat building, Mom got out and went back to open the side rear-door and let me out. When she did, I scooted to the far side of the seat, crying out “ I don’t want to go!” Mom just closed the door she was standing at and went around to the side I had scooted to. When she did, I just scooted back again to the opposite side. She lovingly but firmly told me that this new experience was unavoidable, and that everything would be all right, that I was going like school.The hectic back-and-forth action went on for awhile, but eventually she got ahold of me and led me inside.
Beyond arriving on that first day, I have only vague memories of kindergarten. One was when my teacher punished me for being bad. I don’t remember what the infraction was. But the idea forcibly impressed upon my young mind was that I had done something wrong. The sensation was for the most part unfamiliar to me. My parents favored the encouragement method of child-raising, and I’m glad. They rarely disciplined me. In general, life unfolded for me like a flower. I discovered wonderful new things every day. Good and bad were not things which I had to deal with until I went to school, where I was taught to discriminate between things, and to judge. In school I also learned what it was like to BE judged.
“You can play at home, Danny. Here at school we learn how to make good choices. You want to learn how to be good, don’t you?”
So, anyhow, even though I don’t remember what I did to deserve it, my teacher’s form of discipline was to make me sit under my desk for awhile, and think about what I’d done. Whatever I’d done, it was bad as opposed to good behavior.
Another memory I have is when my teacher told my mother that she thought I might have mental problems. It came about like this..
The teacher gave out paper to all the kids and said “Today we’re going to PAINT!”
She passed out paper, tempera paint and brushes. Every child got busy. But what was little Danny doing? I was busy brushing red paint over the entire surface of the paper, to my teacher’s unspoken abject consternation. Does little Danny have problems in his head?
When the teacher contacted my parents and voiced her concerns, they must’ve been startled at first by her serious tone, until she told them them what happened. I hope they laughed. Mom and Dad I mean. They must’ve at least told my teacher there was an explanation for this.
You see, I had very recently done some painting with my father. He let me help him paint the picket fence in front of our house. We painted it solid red! I watched him and just did what he did, brushing all the surfaces entirely red. When my teacher said we were going to “paint,” I thought I knew exactly what she was talking about. I didn’t need to discriminate about nothin’! It must’ve been disturbing for my parents when they listened to her assessment of the situation. She thought a solid-red painting indicated repressed anxiety, sublimated anger, or something like that. After all, she was a teacher, and part of her job was to make these kind of assessments.
But I think little Danny already knew in his knower what painting was. I think maybe my teacher lost sight of what it was somewhere along life’s way.
Painting is something total. It’s an immersive act..and it’s something you do with your Father.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m aware of the facts. Before I went to school, before I learned better, it was still possible for me to be blissfully unaware of these painful parameters. But it’s too late for me now. I’m educated.
Anyone who becomes an artist knows this. Anyone who tries to bring forth the new, to make things that have never been seen, heard, or read before is going to get a stiff taste of the tragic nature of creativeness.
The created thing - no sooner is it made than it falls short somehow - falls short of the artist’s original conception, and of course, of other peoples’ ideas as to what art is or should be. As soon as something is made it enters the realm of objects. It exists only in relation to other things, therefore it is immediately subject to categorical assessment. Where does this fit into the scheme of things?
Every created piece has limits, defining characteristics. Even abstraction does. For the artist, each work must ultimately be satisfactorily realized within the limits which the evolving piece establishes for itself. It stands or falls relative to an original inspiration or idea. As it nears “completion” the creative process becomes a back-and-forth juggling match, between the motivating vision and the necessary “finality” of the realized piece. It should be reaching beyond itself, but it can only reach so far.
Music reaches farthest. It is closest to fathomless, limitless spirit. But even music, especially recorded music, enters the objective realm.
The creative effort is, in this world at least, this side of infinite freedom, constrained. It must do what it needs to do, be what it must be, within the limits established for it. And, of course, the work will be judged. An assessment must be made if this thing actually is what it ostensibly declares itself to be. Is it art? What kind of art is it? Is it good? If not, is it bad then? Maybe it’s just the product of an unstable mind, like my kindergarten teacher thought.
You see what started on that first day of kindergarten, Mom? I got educated, developed, got to learn about all these things. Wasn’t that great? I knew something was up.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to go back. I can’t go back. But I do still want to paint with my Father.
Nicholas Berdyaev, the great Russian thinker, whom I quote often, called this phenomenon “the dictatorship of consciousness.” Man defends himself against the chaos of his subconscious mind by “the censorship of consciousness.”
I am blessed and grateful to have grown up in a beautiful home. One of my mother’s favorite words was “beauteous,” another was “wondrous.” When I was older I thought Mom’s constant use of these words was kind of funny. If she were still around, I’d make a point of apologizing to her for having thought this way. She was a magnificent, overcoming woman. Her love of beauty and the artistic way she adorned our modest homes through the years are at the root of my love for color and design. But I knew unconsciously that there was more going on than met the eye, both in and outside our home — a hidden conflict.
Again, even though I loved and admired her immensely, my mother was sentimental. She lived in stubborn denial when it came to certain unpleasant aspects of reality. I don’t know where I read this definition, but it states it very well: a sentimental person cannot endure living NOT as they would like to live. Mom celebrated life, but accepted only those things she wanted to believe about it. She encouraged my creativity, however, and I’ll always grateful for that.
I don’t recall exactly how it started, but she probably said something like: “ Use your imagination!” If she did, I’m not sure she knew what was being unleashed. Of course, neither did I, but I seemed to know enough to begin to draw - from that fathomless well - the unconscious mind.
Berdyaev said “the faculty of imagination is the source of all creativeness,” and that “imagination springs from the depths of the unconscious.” Mom oversaw the beginning of that probe into primeval depths. She put the tools in my hands— most likely just pencils, crayons and blank paper— and cheering me on, proceeded to kick-start the grand adventure of my puzzling, creative life.
So, in a way, she allowed in me what she would never allow in herself. Mom only countenanced brightness and cheer in her home..but there was much more to the magic of the imagination than wonder and light. From it also issued all things dark and chaotic. For the rest of my life I would wrestle with these things, in the creative struggle to make everything new.
I don’t blame my mother for wanting to protect me: I was a vulnerable little bundle. She really wanted life to be “nice” (another word she used a lot) and was brave in her efforts to realize this fantasy. But the destructive forces rife in this conflicted world simply do not “play nice.” Fortunately, those called to the creative vocation don’t need to pussyfoot around either.
Of course, I wasn’t conscious of all these things back then. But “I knew in my knower” there was something afoot.
Questions arose like: why does my mother act so nervous and fearful sometimes, why does it seem like she is governed more by emotions than reason (although I’m really not one to talk in this regard,) like when she breathlessly spanked me after I had wandered out where the hobos hung out? (See my March blog.) Are the hobos “bad” people. I knew she didn’t think that. My mother couldn’t tolerate that perspective. To Mom, nobody was bad. Were they “good” then, I must’ve wondered? They couldn’t be if my mother didn’t want me to chance by their temporary place of residence. But they obviously weren’t “nice.” Maybe they were just conflicted like Mom.
And there were other questions springing up. My father was a Methodist minister. In the church there were a bunch of people who listened to his sermons every Sunday. Every day he’d work in his study on his sermon, a message designed to reassure the congregation. I wondered.. what was it about life that my dad had to work so hard to help his people get through it?
I’ll get into this next month. Walt Disney will be part of the discussion after that. I should also note that the partial quote “in the loins” of the first drawing in this blog is from H.G. Wells, a man laudably determined to focus more on the future of mankind than its past.
The creative life is deeply rooted in the experience of play. But as we grow, necessity knocks hard on our door, and the ability to play is replaced by other things. We’re told these other things are more important. Like the need to learn how to work. It’s disconcerting because..well, I guess we thought work was play and play was work. But gradually it became a struggle to reach that place at all.
You learn that the life of being a maker is something you have to fight for. There’s opposition to it. Because creativity is freedom and freedom must be won.
My parents, especially my mother (my dad wasn’t around as much) always championed my creative work. I’m deeply grateful. Mom was always encouraging, positive that anything was possible. I drank it up. One of the earliest memories I have of creative play is when I began to draw with her cheering me on. It was about 1952 in our home in San Luis Obispo. I never stopped.
I also liked to play in the fort in the backyard which my dad built. He was an excellent carpenter. Zimmerman actually means carpenter in german, and Gilbert Sanford Zimmerman married Florabel Jo Carpenter.
My father was a Methodist minister. For me the spiritual has always been wed to the physical, all of it a place of adventure and beauty. I suppose you might say it was because of the spin Dad put on things. But I think it was much deeper than that. I always felt both he and God enjoyed building places for us to play in!
The fort itself was a wonder - a fantastic fortress one day and sailing ship the next. It was two floors high with walls so we couldn’t fall out. There was a ladder in it so you could climb to the “upper deck,” which had a ship’s wheel installed, overlooking the high seas.
We were allowed to play either in the fort or in the house. This was mostly okay with me. I was only five. But I must’ve wondered why was it called a “fort.”
Here I start to wax philosophical.
Perhaps it was called a fort because the place of play is located in a contested realm, a place of danger. All true creative efforts are challenged efforts. You can’t just leap out of a boat on the high seas and expect to survive. Arrows penetrate the skin very easily. Both the home and the fort are places of protection. When we stay inside we’re supposed to be safe.
Of course, from an artist’s perspective, it’s not always possible or even desirable to be safe. At its root creativity never is. Breaking new ground is always risky. Living out on the frontier can be perilous.
Again, back when I was five, I remember breaking a rule my parents laid down to keep us safe. “Don’t go in the swamp!” “The Swamp” was an soggy tract of land across the street from our house. We gave it that name because it had a lot of marshy areas you had to cross by walking on logs, boards or rocks to keep your feet dry. “But those trails are for adults, not kids,” my dad said.
But the place was deeply mysterious and attractive to me. I was forbidden to go there. Maybe they thought it was just too easy to slip off a wet rock and get into the muck. No, there was something more perilous than soggy ground out there. It was the old railroad bridge under which hobos were known to hang out.
“Hobos! What are hobos, Mom, Dad?” I learned that they were men without homes, who “..wandered about and slept under bridges (instead of houses) or hopped on trains to go from town to town (instead of driving in cars like we do.)”
I don’t think they actually told me this, but what it came down to was they were afraid I might run into the hobos.. that they might do something terrible to me. “Just DON”T go out there,” Mom said.
Well.. I ended up not being able to resist the temptation. One day I scurried across the street and into the forbidden zone, staying mostly out of the muck. I saw a lot of frogs but never caught sight of a hobo…but I definitely caught something when I got back home with soaked pant legs: a lickin’! It’s the only time I remember getting spanked, and it was a fierce paddling. Mom did it.
My mother was a woman of great strength. Her maiden name was Carpenter, and the roots of her family reach way back to the Plymouth Colony. Alice Carpenter Southworth was the second wife of William Bradford, whose first wife died soon after arriving on the Mayflower. They were married in 1623. I come from pioneer stock.
When my mother’s grandparents settled in Greeley, Colorado it was still a stockade. I’m told it was built more to keep liquor and lawless drunkards out than it was to protect the settlers from armed attack. It was the frontier.
The creative realm still is. When you work out on that edge your work invites conflict. Each of us must learn what the fight means for us personally. We need to know what it means for us to go out, and what it means for us to come back in.
Opposition can rise up within the walls of the fort as well. Disease is always a threat. So are spies and the duplicity of human nature.
Spies typically present themselves as someone different than they actually are. They can pose as friends, even, but their intent is to bring us down.
In a war one needs allies. But the spy and the liar would convince us that our friends are our foes and our foes our friends. So. it behooves us to be wise.
I suppose there are those who might say they’re fine, that they don’t need a home, that they prefer to live alone. But I would counter that if you say you don’t have need of protection or at least comfort, you must be a man of steel, or a man like no one I’ve ever met.
A child needs shelter, but it is also needful for a grown man to find protection when he needs it. It seems to me that men often have an over-inflated sense of their own strength.
It’s in a man’s nature to crave exploits. But he also needs cover.
It’s been hard for me to let myself be covered by the roof of my own home. I like to go out, filled with the counsel of my own heart. It’s been much harder for me to turn around and go back in. I did some awfully stupid things as a young man. But then again, what adventurous man doesn’t? You can’t always be safe. Nevertheless, any man, young or old, is foolish if he thinks himself invulnerable. Especially in this war.
When I first encountered the vertical walls of houses and the hard, straight lines of streets I was still suffused with a memory of something altogether different. It's no easy task to describe this memory. I guess I knew it mostly by contrast to the new world into which I was suddenly dropped.
After all, how does one describe invisible physicality? As soon as I use a word like spiritual I know I’m going to lose somebody. Bright or ghostly maybe? But ghostly still has a creepy connotation and this was anything but creepy. But it was of another realm, and - I cannot find a more accurate description - it most assuredly was of the spirit.
It was a memory of warmth and comfort, but certainly not cozy. There was a vast majesty to this embracing environment. But it knew me. Better than I’ve ever been able to know myself. Besides this, somehow I knew the one who knew me was kind.
It would be too easy to say this recollection was only of the womb. No, there was a much deeper origin. The memory has never left nor have I been able to shake it. But the harsh delineations of the world into which I had been placed were distinctly different, and anything but kind.
To be fair, not everything I came up against was unyielding. There were bushes and trees in our backyard, and weeds in the cracks. Grass yielded to the touch, but even grass was managed, cut back to match the lines of poured cement. Of course, weeds were plucked.
The general theme here is that it all felt so alien to me. I was still used to something much more giving. It was the fifties and my family lived in South Central Los Angeles, a terrain dominated by the hard and the straight.
It seemed unavoidable. The world's demands were insistent.“Wake up. It’s time for you to get in line, young man!"
So gradually I familiarized myself with these commanding characteristics, There was the severity of concrete, the unyielding resistance of metal. I fell onto a steel grate once as an child and still have a scar where it split my nose. There were hard, awkward boxes called cars and confrontational abutments known as houses. Architecture in general. These were things that did not yield or give to the touch, things that caused pain when you collided with them.
As is characteristic of suburban neighborhoods, the houses were on rectangular plots of land surrounded by fences. My question was and still is - what are fences, anyway? The obvious implication here was that you couldn’t go over there. Either that or you needed to be protected from what was over there. And again there were driveways, sidewalks and streets stretching out in all directions, composed of asphalt, cement or other equally inhospitable materials.
When we traveled we crawled into automobiles, those strange, hard, albeit sleek capsules. And we passed people who were in their own respective encasing capsules.
So much was happening in my brain. Like, why does it have to be like this? Why all these separating lines and protective surfaces. Why the need for such severities?
Speaking of cars, I recall the time I performed a very personal experiment as a 5 year old. What if I just open the back door while our family's station wagon was rolling down the street? What if I just..step outside? What if I just refuse to let this metal box hurtle me along?
Of course I survived, but it certainly hurt when I hit the asphalt, and freaked my parents out. I think my brothers might have thought it was interesting.
Eventually the restrictive demands of the hard and the straight began to invade the inner sanctum; my family was violated by its unfeeling dictates. It was very hard. I'd assumed for a long time that my family was impregnable. The majority of this came later though and it deserves separate coverage.
In those early days of the fifties and sixties, however, my parents taught me something key, that it was possible to escape, albeit temporarily, from the world's unflinching dictates. I learned there was such a thing as legitimate rebellion.
Jumping out of our car’s back door while we were driving was not a healthy form of rebellion, but fleeing to the mountains or the beach was.
My folks whisked us away on what we called "family days," usually to either the beach or the rambling hills of Simi Valley - where the western movies were made which my father liked to watched on Sunday afternoons to unwind. We rolled, ran, climbed and tumbled, up and down the oaks and the piles of rocks and boulder. Like I said, it was either that or the warm sand and soft roar of the ocean. These places were all so much more familial than what we'd escaped from. They were like the cosmic home I recalled in the recesses of my consciousness, an environment I could interact with. You can't interact with cement, or rules.
The older I grew the more relentless the demands. I became all too familiar with the idea of necessity, stuff you just had to do. Obligation seemed to be inherent in very fabric of things. I really wanted something different, but it was like I had very little choice in the matter.
To expand on this, let me say that besides teaching me it was possible to escape for brief periods, both my parents, but especially my father, taught me the value of principled resistance. More on this later.
I was learning to fight back, to kick against the pricks. This is where the creative life began for me, when I refused to cave. It was only the beginning. My destiny beckoned, and my young soul did its best to respond. I was discovering that there was another way.
I could become a maker.
Of course, the tale of this discovery stretches through my entire life.
At first, however, I was mostly learning that sometimes I could say no,
In a respectful way of course. I still contend it was a holy revolt, because I contended with the things I was made to contend with.
Let me relate one of my earliest rebel acts. I was gazing out at the straight street I lived on, down the long line of houses on each side. I knew each house was supposed to be a separate unit, defined by property line and fence. I knew each address was a private residence. But these separations were what my little soul was chafing at.
I walked across the street and around the side of the house at the end of the block. As I gazed up at the backyard fence of the house on the northwest corner of 78th and Van Ness, a plan hatched. It wasn’t a destructive idea, just contrary. I set about climbing over and into that backyard; then I scurried quickly and circumspectly across to scale the next backyard fence, scooting across the next yard and on and on down the entire block, finally emerging at the far end, at Cimarron and 78th. I’m looking at the map on Google now. That’s 12 houses!
Before I wind this up I'd like to mention a couple more examples of how the hard-and-the-straight is enforced. Consider the lawn trimmer and the paradigm of the trimmed edge. The sharper the better. The dominating idea here is to keep the inherently wild nature of grass in check. To do so you must cut it. Sure, go ahead and celebrate your lawn, but keep it under control.
And lastly, we all know that we're expected to shovel the snow off our sidewalk, and that when we do so to shovel it all off, so that the lines match.
In both situations I have stopped trying to maintain a sliced edge. The lawn trimmer broke and I'm glad. As for shoveling my walk I've taken to doing it in an irregular fashion, creating a fanciful serpentine path.
Why am I making such a fuss about this? I've repeatedly mentioned how shocked I was by the strict dimensions I was being introduced to - after what I had known, after being known, in the infinite heart of the maker before I was born - after the rich, brief feast of love which was the family I grew up in.
Previously I have tried to paint a picture of how the loving continuum of the universe continued to echo in my heart. I heard it in the soft roar of the ocean, and in the contrapuntal harmonies of sublime music that washed over me in church.
But now I heard marching orders. It was like suddenly having my face shoved into a concrete wall after I'd been rolling in the warm surf.
Even though I was taught I could flee the city, I knew I had to find a better way to break free, something more effective than avoidance tactics.
If I could somehow mould matter rather than be moulded myself. If could shape life into something personal and new. I knew there was a greater reality but I needed to discover a way to tap into it.
How I found, and re-found this creative way, is why I'm writing and
what I will be writing about from now on.
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.