Thursday, March 7, 2013

Museum Musings: How To Make S#%! Happen

Totally how I picture Time, actually.
By Jeremy Simon (GFDL)
via Wikimedia Commons
I would like to think you've noticed my absence, but the internet is full of clamor and I won't be hurt if you haven't. After all, I've hardly noticed I've been gone. Time, that vast and wheezy accordion, has been compressed, and I've skipped over the pleats and found myself inexplicably in March. (I worry about the speed with which time moves; I'm certain it was slower in my childhood. But that makes perfect sense, really, especially after watching this stunning stop-motion animation.) I can't account for it, other than to say I've been moving, and working, and spending my rare spare minutes dancing and trying to fit my novel in around the edges. If one thing has to falter, it's my life on the internet.

But this blog has been my brainstorming space for my own museum, and much though I love the hours I'm pouring into the Exploratorium (which is going to be so superlatively awesome, you guys, and if you're in SF this weekend you can get a taste of it at our epically awesome and totally free roadshow-slash-street-festival), it's very easy to get so caught up learning and making and working here that I forget to take the time to daydream. Daydreaming is a vital part of any ambitious and bizarre endeavor; if you're trying to create something that doesn't exist yet, how can you know what needs to be done without dedicating hours purely to imagining the possibilities? Fantasy and reality aren't opposites, but complements. Problems arise when you can't distinguish between the two, but creativity occurs in the space where the boundary becomes mutable. Much of what has become our daily life began in fantasy; much of what we envision and dream has its roots in what already is. They nourish each other. 

But while it's simple to draw reality into the world of the mind, it is rather more difficult to draw fantasy out into the world of matter. Giving flesh to daydreams is tricky work. My two great successes in doing so - other than my admittedly ambitious and bizarre thesis work, which I don't count because I had the incentive of graduating on time to spur its passage over the threshold - have both been intimately caught up with flesh in the most physical sense, by which I mean my body. I daydreamed about being a dancer. I daydreamed about being a builder. And now I have the great good fortune to be both.

I don't think it is a coincidence that my ideas about joy found expression in the dream of a museum built by hand. I've written a lot about the ways in which I feel joy is inextricable from our physical experience. (It's not just me, honest: the thoughts of these dozens of people who contributed their experiences of joy overflow with the kind of sensory descriptions my English teachers used to beg us for on bended knee.) We find great joy in physical acts of creation and labor, from climbing a mountain to planting a garden, from making art to making love. It's through some act of physical toil that we give tangible shape to our intangible dreams.

With dance, I daydreamed about being a dancer for a long time before I ever took a dance class. In some ways it was simply easier to imagine it. In the end, it was meeting someone who was already a dancer and the strange feeling of jealousy I had that spurred me to actually get up and do it. And I discovered that my body loved dance far more than my mind could grasp. The dream of dancing was nothing compared to the deep joy of actually doing it. Of course, in my daydreams I can do things that even now, after almost ten years of training, I cannot do at all. But now that I know how good dance feels, those reveries are something to fuel my living practice. The reality and the fantasy perform an elaborate duet that draws me deeper and deeper into the experience.

It was the same with building houses: I started building dream houses in my head at nine or ten years old. For a while I wanted to be an architect, but that turned out to involve a lot of very hard and boring work and a lot of involvement with some sensationally ugly buildings. When I discovered cob building, it seemed too miraculous to be true - a house you built with your hands! in whimsical shapes! with no need for a fancy degree or years on the job! - and so, of course, I daydreamed about that. Until, at some point (how did I manage to kick myself hard enough? I wish I knew), I took a deep breath, and with the help & encouragement of my partner, I plunked down the money for a building workshop. And, as with dance, the actual act of building was a kind of bliss, a wild and profound joy, that my daydreams couldn't even conceive of.

Most daydreams, I think, tend to skip the phases of construction. They go straight to the finished work, the created thing, the performance, the summit, the first meal cooked in the kitchen. They don't linger on the frustrations or the pleasures of the actual act of making, and why should they? Daydreams tell me what I want to build, but only the body can have the experience of falling in love with building it. Yesterday, for example, I spent four hours tethered to the ceiling of the Exploratorium, bending over backwards on the top rung of a 16-foot ladder, painting a bunch of lighting trusses a lovely shade of three-day-old-zombie green. At one point I realized I was hungry, and my god, the thought of lunch was a pleasure. The last time I thought about sitting down to eat with that kind of satisfaction was - as it happens - more than six months ago, when I was sitting on top of a cold wall made of mud I had been working on for hours. I have never in my life felt that kind of warm glow about sitting down to eat after a morning at a computer, whether I was working on my novel or making data sheets. The labor of the body has a rich relationship to pleasure that is lost when we're unable, for reasons of time or money, to give ourselves over to the physical realization of a dream.

I'm not trying to romanticize hard labor, or say that other forms of creation are less valid if they involve less work. I think I mean more that the body loves to be given work that it can do. We love our big beautiful brains so much, we humans; we take pleasure in wit and language and thought. But the body also wants to be asked to do great things, to work with us in the creation of beauty and meaning. I love dance because I can do it. Not right away, of course, it's work, it's hard, it takes time. But when I give myself over to my body, if I let go of controlling everything from the fussy bureaucracy of the mind and ask my body to take charge of making things, my god, does it love to do the work.

(It's funny saying "it" as if it was a separate thing - and yet, if I say "I" I'm pretty sure you won't understand when I mean the part of me that's my body as opposed to the part of me that's my mind. In these moments, my body is as much the I as the mind, and sometimes more - and yet, in our body-scorning culture, it seems odd to even want to talk about my body as more than just a kind of servant I order around, or a house I happen to live in. I've heard hundreds of people say "I hate my body," but I've never heard anyone say "I hate my mind" as if it was some other thing, some detached, unwanted part - and if I did, I'd probably worry pretty seriously about their mental wellbeing. I mean, I worry about the wellbeing of people who hate their bodies, but let's face it: we think that's normal.)

Where I'm going with all this is that it's hard to make daydreams a reality, but the body has a special love for making things real. My greatest fear with the Museum of Joy is that it's too close to impossible, that it will linger in the land of daydream and I'll never quite make myself give it flesh. Which is why making it not some shiny construction of glass and steel but a homemade, handbuilt construction of mud houses is so radically important: I know I can do that. And, more importantly, I know I'll love doing it. Braiding a physical act of creation that I already know gives me great joy into the threads of the great daydream that is this museum is the surest way I know to draw it, slowly but surely, out of that strange and cloudy realm of the imagined and into the here under my feet.


  1. I have noticed your absence. I've also been extraordinarily busy.

    I had many things I wanted to say, but it's taken me about 3 hours to get through your whole post, so I will say this last thing (because I've forgotten all of those other thoughts).

    We don't say those kinds of things about the mind because the mind is so nebulous and subjective that we all think our minds are super models. In fact, it's distinctly not okay to say something like "I'm smarter than you" even when there is objective data to back that up, because we don't think of our brains that way. On the other hand, it's perfectly acceptable to say, "I'm stronger than you," because, then, I can pick up some weights and show you. Which is why we hate our bodies, because we can look out there and see, objectively, where our bodies fail us. We can pretend like our minds never do.

    1. That's an interesting thought, Andrew. I think you've got something there. For me, though, it also comes very strongly from the mind/body split essentially enforced by Christian doctrine over the last 1700 years or so...

  2. I won't say I've missed your Internet presence because I read your blog whence it comes to my email, however, I can NOW say I've missed your voice and thoughts and daydreams. They bring hope, and hope is something in far too small portions these days.

    I agree with you about daydreams. When I was a kid, and even up into young adulthood, I used to ALWAYS fall asleep dreaming up an entire story I'd write someday. I never did wake up and write any of it down, but it was the soothing feeling and the push it offered in reality to drive me toward writing.

    Dreams are important. Doing what makes us joyous is important. I'm not sure there's a lot of difference between the two. :)

    1. I'm guessing Gaston Bachelard, whose Poetics of Space is my bible of daydreaming, would almost certainly agree with you, Rob :)


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