Friday, March 23, 2012

On Building Kaleidoscopes

Somewhere in me lives a certainty that creativity is desperately, excruciatingly important to living the kind of life that swells you full of gladness for having had a chance to live it, but why does creativity matter, exactly? I've spent a lot of time considering this, with the help of many of my loved ones. From the Sagrada Familia  to poems about spring, here's a little on why the word 'kaleidoscopic' is a perfect one for understanding what creativity does and why it hits us in the heart.

In a letter to me a while back, my father wrote:

I'm trying to get away from the fetish that there's a thing at the end of the creative process. Creativity isn't mere manufacturing, not at all. There doesn't have to be a thing at the end (difficult as that is to face in our capitalist universe). No, but I think every creative act does need to include something like this: I glimpse some aspect of the world and I try to imitate that aspect, with my body or my words or my music, or with extensions of my body like paint & paper. As if the essence of creativity is some kind of mimesis. If I'm Shakespeare, I have to walk like Prospero before I can write the speeches of Prospero. To paint a buffalo on a cave wall I have to be the buffalo. When I write a poem, I believe I have the whole poem wordless inside me; the act of creation is copying out the wordless into words, skillfully unfurling the unmanifest into the manifest.

So what's so great about being somebody different (the wordless muse, the buffalo, Prospero....)? Well, there's this tremendous relief in transcending my one limited paltry existence. A kind of ecstasy in breaking out of the finite and into unlimited possibility. It's ecstasy, "standing out from oneself" in Greek. I see something that is or could be, and it's beautiful or powerful or different. I let myself embody it, become it; give up being me for a moment, give up being sure and defined. There's a taste of infinity in the process. And the thing that I make, in the creative process, the gesture or poem or circus poster or piece of music - if it really has the breath of the infinite in it, people will recognize that, and they'll be inspired with the beauty and the urge to create, all over again.

He wrote this to me, and I thought: yes. But there's more to it than that, I think. I wrote back to him:

What I struggle with most is a sense that all my creativity is inwards, making of me a kind of hermetic museum inside of which all is dancing and alive but what good is that if I can't return it to the outer world that brought it into being? Only by bringing forth that energy can I feel the world around me to be as miraculous as it is within me. And the great conflict is the certain knowledge that I am full of a sense of powerful and living magic, and the utter fear that it will stay locked in me forever. So this is my great and only work: to make real the essence within me, to know absolutely that the outer world and the inner world flow together, a fountain of cupped hands in the glorious gladness of the rain --

A staircase in the kaleidoscopic Sagrada Familia
And then I went away and thought about it some more, and wondered about that creativity locked away inside me, the thousands and thousands of tissue-fine layers of images and fragments and snatches of daydream: city streets, moonlit gardens of quiet fountains and freesias, the round stone room I built in my head when I was a kid full of cabinets of dolls, spice markets, rain on the roof of a kitchen with stone floors and wood beams and herbs in blue pots in the windows...minarets, mouths on my breasts, my lover's body transformed into a stream full of sunlight, teacups I have never seen. There are worlds inside me that have never known a home beyond the chambers of my heart. The outer world, this world I'm plunged like a fish born underwater, seeps into me, sometimes tears me open and shouts into me, sometimes shines in like the sun in the morning. And it gives me the language, in colors and scents and sometimes in words, of the worlds within me: though they are all made within, I can only dream of the fragrance of unknown streets because of the streets I have seen, shaped by words in my mind or in my eyes by the light, the cardamom and ginger that has been put on my tongue, the knowledge of color, of warmth, of a winding alley, all born inwards on the wings of the senses.

And this inner life, in turn, can find ways to spill back out -- wants to spill back out, wants to become part of the world. The worlds within me are luminous, shivering, iridescent, marvelous. How to let them out? How to make manifest the unmanifest, how to give back to the world around me the shining shadows it has taught me how to weave behind my eyes? I think the answer to this is art -- but not only the simple act of making. Creativity, in the spiritual sense I am giving it, is not about creating a thing but rather about living in the strange swirling space at the boundary of the self and the universe, where the world pouring into me meets up with the worlds that surge and foam only in my understanding. I mean I want to live like a kaleidoscope.

“Kaleidoscope: Magnifying Glass No. 1” by Jeffrey Hayes
5" x 5", oil on panel, 2009. Used with permission.
A kaleidoscope is literally an "observer of beautiful forms," from the Greek kalos "beautiful" + eidos "shape" + skopion, from skopein "to look at, examine" -- except that it is not, in fact, a passive observer at all. A kaleidoscope takes in the world and tumbles it through mirrors and glass and remakes it in intricate, magical, chaotically ordered patterns that shift with your breath like light on the water. One half world-as-is, one half the changing assortment of things-in-the-viewer, the result is a kind of living mystic vision. What I am afraid of is living with either the world or the glass beads fixed in place, of seeing only the outer or the inner and not the transcendent dance between them. The ecstasy of breaking out of the finite.

There are acts that are particularly good at reminding us just how thin the borders of the body really are: I would call them eating, dancing, sex. They are not creative acts in the sense of a thing being made. They can easily be boring. But putting onto your tongue something truly delicious, whether flavored by star anise and honey or salted by hunger, especially shared among friends or else prepared lovingly, thoughtfully for oneself -- dancing because the music pouring down into your bones has made it impossible for your hips not to move -- your body moving into another, taking up one another's space, blending in warmth-- in moments like these inside and outside tend to flow completely together, and this we call joy. And here is a poem about that:

By the time I decide to write love poems it's Spring

and the stalks in their green have bloomed to fire and gold
and their fibers are in a language of joy,
and a woman, with hair like the back of a honeybee’s jacket
combs, the comb moves in a language of joy.
There is a gardener, who's thought a fool for tending to dirt,
and his trowel was forged in a language of joy.

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