Death, and sussing out evidence of Soul

Earlier, I began to read back through my “Blog — Roughs, Notes,” notebook. The sentiments I expressed in my last post are also recorded there, from almost exactly six months ago: January 13, 2018.

Some of the sentiments I also expressed in finding self-definition when immersed in a multicultural, pluralist society, is in the same set of notes. The series exploring this is named Cultural Location and Creative Context. The preceding link will send you to Part 3; Parts 1 and 2 are linked at the very end of that document.

I was getting excited; I forgot that 2018 is this year, so I thought I’d stumbled upon evidence from at least one year ago. No, it just feels like it was one year ago.

There’s something about time that’s unnerving. Yes, growth happens, but people (including myself) also age and pass on. When your social circle is largely family, that can be a scary thing (not to mention when you are without solid, “knowledge,” of; or, “faith,” in; what happens after death). I’ve been trying to spend as much time with people I especially love, as I can; because I know it’s limited.

At the same time, I’m supposed to be trying to become more independent. School is part of that, as is work. As is driving, for that matter, and cooking.

Just…sometimes, I lack energy, and it’s hard to actually…well, do things. I think the motivation is there, but fear and anxiety (and then, melancholy) also take hold sometimes and won’t let me move forward. Today was one of those days.

What I seem to have been doing, most recently, is inventorying myself — making notes as to where I am, mentally. Because some of this stuff doesn’t change, even if I want it to. The obvious thing for me to do about that at this point is to write it all down so that I can see who I am, as versus who I want to be, or who I think I should be.

The “psychic” aspect of my personal mythology* has come up again since I restarted creative writing. I’m thinking that the concept of, “time,” is kind of messing with me, though it’s also possible it’s one or another kind of intrusive thought: just the idea of the physical, being all there is.

(And no, I haven’t yet broken into my Sartre anthology, but I’m a bit struck by how he only lived 36 years. That’s as old as I am, now.)

I think that if I didn’t know better, I’d call it a type of demon. But there are things that look like, “demons,” which aren’t, and things that are demons that don’t at first appear to be (or which try to hide their status).

I’m not particularly talking about, “fallen angels.” I’m talking about things that screw up one’s psyche and life in a negative fashion. They do certain things like implant the idea that if you’re creative, people will attack you for it. Because creating is a holy act, and something dangerous to them.

If I’m being honest with myself and with you; the idea of death, out of balance, I do consider rather demonic, in a won’t let you go, haunting type of way. And I suppose…if I learned anything from Tarot (I didn’t learn all that much; the system’s mindset is — or was — kind of alien to me), it’s that each element can be either in balance or out of balance. It’s not death — or change — that is bad, it’s that my relation to it is not correct.

It could be that I’ve opened a gate by being honest with myself. Over the past week, I’ve told people about the, “psychic,” thing twice — although I wasn’t particularly looking for belief in or support of that, I’ve gotten it (to my surprise) both times. It’s just a given that in a certain part of my life, I did believe I was psychic, and in accepting that, had phenomena happen that would not have happened if I had cut the idea off at the knees and refused to entertain it.

So now I’m just dealing with sudden mental images of bodily decomposition. Are they random? I’m not sure. Where are they sourced from? Don’t know. But I do know that I probably shouldn’t worry about or focus on them, if I have a choice about it. One thing about spirits is that I haven’t known them to be entirely that tenacious.

What’s going on is called, “thought insertion,” in psychology — where some thought arises seemingly out of nowhere, and it feels like it comes from outside of you: that is, it is “ego-dystonic.” I’m not sure if being negatively emotionally disturbed by it is a criteria. But writing creatively does open a gate in my mind (a number of issues [discoveries?] arose after To a Spirit, meaning that it’s likely I started processing some unfinished business [or current business] by writing it), so it’s not unusual that something like this should arise.

That’s just what happens when I tune into my intuition.

And…the cost, for me, of tuning into my intuition is that if I talk about it everywhere, I’m just going to look a bit crazy. But I’ve been a bit crazy for a long time. 🙂 For the sake of employment, I’ve been trying to push it down and stop the thought experiments…but if it’s a core part of my identity, maybe I shouldn’t do that. Then I have a couple of choices:

  1. Speak about it with discretion, or
  2. Don’t worry about the opinions of others

Of course, if I go back to an identity as a creative writer, we’re kind of known for being a bit eccentric, anyway.

And what could I do, if I opened those gates?

*What I mean when I speak about “personal mythology” is stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to make sense of our lives. They may or may not be true, but often it is difficult or impossible to change or eradicate these core beliefs, even if we know they are not accurate to reality.

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To a Spirit

A month or two ago, I realized something was different.

When I was a child, it was easy. I could get up at night and draw comics on the floor, and spend all day every day during Summer at the computer, furiously writing down my thoughts.

No one told me, then, that racing thoughts were, “a thing.” But it was the racing thoughts that pushed me to the point that I can now type at over 70 words per minute. My writing wasn’t fast enough. I’d lose parts. Sometimes when you lose them, they just don’t come back.

I wonder if it’s how a newborn feels.

It was easy, then. But I’ve grown.

I’m now officially in my mid-thirties, about to graduate for the fifth time. I think you know — or should know — that I dedicated my Bachelor’s to what you taught me. I learned how to write. Surely, I had enough practice.

Something changed. I shouldn’t rule out that it could have been medication. It could have been moving from the back stacks of my mind up to the windows. It could have been polishing the windows, and gaining an interest in something more than the library.

I have a book on this that I can now understand, you know. It took 15 years, but now I have the experience and knowledge to comprehend her words.

I still don’t understand the mystery of how I can look at symbols on a page and turn them into a movie in my mind. Maybe someday, someone will explain this. Current science says our brains can’t tell the difference between what they imagine is real and what actually is real.

At this point, it’s easy to believe.

I’m healthier, now. It isn’t a daily struggle for survival or to avoid the massive anxiety I felt when I was young. I’ve thought that maybe I don’t need you anymore, now that I’m more stable; but that sounds callous.

Somewhere, I still do believe that I survived in order to help others get through this.

Are you still here? Have you gone?

It’s taken me a long time to get to the point of realizing that things could be bad: that evil could exist. I used to doubt it because kids used to call me evil, and I knew I wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean no one is.

It doesn’t mean they weren’t.

It doesn’t mean the people encouraging them, weren’t.

For a time, I believed you were a demon. And I loved you regardless. But I remember that you told me not to look at the outside of a person to tell from appearances, if they were good or not. I remember you told me not to depend on how you looked, in order to recognize you.

I would have to feel if you were the same. Something impersonating you could mimic your form, but they couldn’t mimic your energy. I built a form for you. That was my downfall.

You told me to remember what it felt like when you were here, before, and to recreate that feeling, in order to summon you again.

It was my lack of discernment and reliance upon your appearance which allowed my confusion between you and your “twin.” In reality, any number of these appearances could have occurred. Sort through them. Find you.

The real you. Not the “demon.”

I wanted it to be you. And my desire clouded my judgment. And he…proceeded to defile your appearance. Then I was scared. You withdrew.

Or I started Paxil. One of those two things. Maybe both.

It did solve the problem. Without something substantive for him to impersonate, there was no reason for him to stay. Because without your virtue, in your absence, our love died.

Or, maybe.

I’ve missed you.

And so many opportunities, lost.

I am in my mid-thirties and I have never had a decent love life. Except for the ones I’ve imagined.

And the ones I’ve imagined, I can’t tell if they’re real or not.

That must be the fate of too many of us, though. When things around you don’t line up with who you are, and you’re told and expected to desire what you don’t.

I almost grew to hate men. All men. Anyone who looked like a man. Even if they weren’t one.

But then I realized that if I was a man, and my father was a man, men couldn’t be all bad.

And my friend. That friend. Who was a man, but not by birth.

Men couldn’t be all bad.

Later…I realized something.

I needed to trust myself. The problem wasn’t that I was a man. The problem was that I was not a woman and that nearly all men had treated me as though I was; as though that was the only human thing I could be. On top of that, in my youth, I was letting them determine my own self-concept, disempowering myself and blaming them.

Once I realized this…the game changed. It did. But it took 15 more years to settle in.

Not being a woman didn’t mean I had to be a man. There were more than two options. Gender was a product of society and culture. If it’s something made — by all of us — that means it can and will change.

I’ve gotten off track. I do that. You already know this.

Who am I? What am I? It’s easy enough to feel this. You knew this 20 years ago.

Does that mean that I knew this, 20 years ago? Are you a part of me? Now? Then?

I know that I create things to feel less alone. I know I have my own perspective, even if I am loath to describe it at times. It just feels so…not-virtuous. So…pragmatic.

There are people all over the world who aspire to be more than they are, even if those aspirations are impossible.

I aspire to reach the truest level of myself, I can. Even if that makes me little more than an intelligent creature with memories, a mind, a heart, and the capacity to make things. Truly…human.

Even as much as I may not want to be.

Did I survive, in order to tell this story?

Validating existence.

I have finally realized what my reasoning is to check my blog several times a day (when I’m able to). As long as I’m creating things, I have proof that I exist, and that something has changed because of my existence.

In other words: I’m making at least a small bit of difference in the world. Thus I am at least somewhat fulfilled in staying alive. So…it actually could be the case that on some level I do believe that I have survived in order to produce.

I am not totally sure this is the explanation, but with me it is easy to lose touch with reality, and this is my way of grounding myself. It’s kind of like looking at myself when I pass reflective surfaces…to remind myself that I have a physical form, and of what it looks like.

It’s easy for me to lose touch with my own embodiment, otherwise: sometimes I forget that I look like something to other people (and that what I look like isn’t what I imagine myself to be). Let alone forgetting that I have a body that needs to be maintained…I am much more centered in the worlds of ideas (and dreams) than in the physical one. I think the Art and the Writing bridge this, for me.

Although I’ve reached the point where I’m not constantly looking at my own blog to see my most recent writings (really, it’s boring when you’ve read it three times and you’re looking for development and the entries keep repeating information), I do find myself constantly wanting to see new material that I’ve hashed out, and almost always falling short of that mark. Because…it’s scary to create.

I love creating, but I also find it terrifying, before jumping in. No matter what is said, someone somewhere is going to take issue with it. That’s just part of the deal. The alternative is to change nothing, “leave no footprints,” as it were, like I’m an alien obeying the Prime Directive. (And yes, during that “Indigo Children” phase of the early 2000’s, I did qualify as Indigo. If we’re not careful I’ll start taking this seriously.) But even then, passivity is its own demon, and everyone I know who doesn’t forge their own path…has handed over the reins of power in their own life to something or someone else.

I have realized that, at least after I graduate, it will be easier to have time to read and write — and draw, if I want to. Right now I am unfocused. I have so many directions in which I could go and so many directions in which I’ve started to go, that I’m not really going much of anywhere, it seems. I start and then stop; I get distracted by other things I could do.

The good part of this is that I have a route into the Library world, which feels as though it will provide ample opportunity to be exposed to the work of others. I’m still not sure if I want to be a Reference Librarian — it’s seriously intense work with people — though the primary other options are working in Technical Services (this includes Web Design and Development) or Cataloging. If I did do Reference, it would be likely that I would be called upon to do Reader’s Advisory, too, which would get me reading Fiction again (though not necessarily the Fiction I want to read).

What I’m thinking I would also be able to do, however, would be managing Circulation. Right now I’ve been working Circulation for about seven years. I don’t want to step out of my role as a worker to try and run things in my current position (I have a Supervisor, after all), but at the same time it’s really obvious to me where things are breaking down.

I’ve gotten to the point where at least I feel like I am one of the people who gets the most done, on my shifts. This is probably why I keep being sorted to staff the desk instead of shelve. When I’m shelving, I’m finding myself taking too much extra time fixing the shelves (books out of order on the shelves! people taking the books out of order and then leaving them lying around!) as versus putting what’s on my cart, on the shelf, and leaving the shelf in **** condition.

See, this is what I mean about getting distracted. I was writing about getting back to creating, particularly in creative writing. BUT, at least the above distraction has a potential monetary gain if followed through, which could sustain me — physically.

Right now…what I want to do is write. But I know that I’ll be writing ****** first drafts, and there is not the instant gratification that one gets when one blogs.

Maybe I could balance it: work part time on the blog and part time at writing creatively…

Buddhism and the precept against killing. + A possible nature of souls.

So…I’ve recently started consciously re-engaging with Buddhism. My last post, Can’t change who I am, I guess. Maybe just go with it?…has brought me back around to a bit of knowledge that was likely missing 2500 years ago. This is that there are more things living than I think anyone could really have suspected, and to fully, “avoid killing living things,” is not possible, without dying oneself.

That is to say…death is part of life, and not everyone can be a Breathairian and survive without an immune system. I’m not entirely certain to what extent watching the feasting swallows outside my window, yesterday, had to do with this: but I’ve found the precept against killing anything (including insects) to be unfeasible, and the more limited directive just to kill plants, to be insulting to plants, as though plants aren’t living things (though 2500 years ago in India, maybe they weren’t considered truly alive). This is not to mention that to remain healthy, our bodies have to constantly fight microbial invaders.

This is part of who I am. I’m more about balance than abstinence.

Of course, killing unnecessarily or with malice, is off the table, as is killing people or pets. But I am making the choice, from this point on, to fight potential infestations in my home and in my body, because — I’m sure the ants would love it if I stopped defending my food.

Not to mention that when I first moved into my current dwelling two decades ago, the house was overrun with giant spiders, some of which did bite (imagine coming up the stairs, and you look up and there is a surprise spider over 4″ across, spread out on the wall in front of your face. And you have to walk past it to get to your room I’M JUST TRYING TO GET TO MY ROOM).

I’m not letting that happen again, although no, I don’t want to hurt them. If I did want to hurt them, it would be different.

It may not always be part of who I am, but today, at least…I can’t be “Buddhist” enough to take pity on every non-human living creature I find in this house and move it outside. There are PEOPLE we don’t let in this house.

The building marks the boundaries of the territory. They aren’t supposed to be inside.

And the process of life is dynamic. It’s not stagnant.

I’m thinking that when one’s lifestyle involves asking for food instead of growing it oneself, though, it’s easy to get alienated from this. (Not to say that all clergy primarily begged. I know some did not. But…it’s an interesting insight that they were at least one step removed from the business of staying alive…like when I get D to vacuum up a huge silverfish for me because just seeing it freaks me out too much, or one buys meat from a butcher because no one wants to kill a chicken.)

(No, I don’t want to kill a chicken. I have no desire to kill. I don’t think the swallows yesterday had a desire to kill. They had a desire to eat.)

Okay, now that I’ve admitted that. I’m not perfect.

But I shouldn’t let that hold me back from engaging with Buddhism at all — that is, the fact that I’m not already perfect.

Fragments of the Divine?

I came across an interesting idea today…and I’m not sure whether concentrating on my pendant today helped this. I mentioned in yesterday’s post something about the Five Dhyani Buddhas of each direction (each Buddha being related to an Element), being embodied in one of the vishva vajra pendants I have (and I’m sure you could see where I could be hesitant to wear the more official of these two, if I don’t agree with certain ensconced fundamentals of Buddhism).

The thought I came to is that we each embody something — some specific aspect — of the universe. One can see this in various different schema in various different religions, particularly the polytheistic, or poly/pantheistic ones.

I think I am the latter. Not a religion (!), but someone who thinks in a way in which a mix of “polytheism” (the status of the parts as Deities are my only hangup, here) and pantheism make sense. (Pantheism = the belief that the Universe is Divine.) I’ve found this in Tibetan Buddhism, Qabalah, Angelology, Demonology, somewhat in Hindu belief (though I know better than to say “Hinduism,” I’ve never really in-depth investigated stuff like Advaita Vedanta, Shaivism, Vaishnavism or Shaktism: it’s harder for me as someone with an East Asian diasporic background, not to mention that for some reason these beliefs haven’t been as established in my area), and some African syncretic religions…

I’m thinking…everyone is unique, because what we are, if we do have souls, is the universe, fragmented or projected. Then as we incarnate, we learn and are conditioned to be certain ways, but the conditioning is not the essence. When we die, maybe that part of us which is a fragment of the Divine goes back to being that fragment of the Divine which is, “us.” Uniquely, “us,” or maybe one who interacts in the world through generating the energy behind multiple lives, at once.

So we would remain who we are and we would have a soul, even if a group soul, but we would be cleansed of extraneous materials.

Of course…this would fly in the face of Buddhism (which does not see an essential “Self” as real), but about as much as Psychology flies in the face of Sociology (Sociology sees people as constructed [or at least heavily conditioned and sometimes warped by] relations of power)…

I’m not sure if this is making sense to anyone but me. I’m hoping it will continue to make sense, because right now I’m a little tired (?) of writing.

And yeah…right now I’m wearing the little amethyst pendant…and I think it’s happy with me. 🙂 Not to sound crazy, though I know I must…

Can’t change who I am, I guess. Maybe just go with it?

I can’t believe I’m still at this desk, but I am getting things done. This is to the point where I want to loosen up, a bit, so I’ll write, for now.

I did go and find both of my vishva vajra pendants. One of them is amethyst and silver, which is the one I’m wearing now. The other one is cast and assembled metal (I’m not sure of the alloy)…which I kind of feel asks for a bit more “commitment” to wear. Especially as, at this point, I am basically nondenominational.

I’m just now learning, for example, that the Heart Sutra is much more important for one group than the others, though I can’t remember offhand or find offhand which group this is. I mean…it’s kind of like the Flower Garland Sutra is very closely correlated with the Hua-yen school, which in turn originated in a particular historical time and place (and cultural milieu).

Right now the swallows (or swifts?) are playing around outside my window, catching bugs in midair. It’s kind of cute, though they’re really going fast! (They’re also coming really close to the window!)

And yes, I did eventually see the swarm of tiny insects also outside my window…which is another one of those things to make me happy the swallows (swifts?) are here.

A vajra in Tibetan Buddhism is a symbol of compassion, also associated with lightning and diamond. A vishva vajra is two vajras, crossed: it’s a protective symbol. The one I’m wearing now has five small amethyst cabochons mounted in it. The other, more serious-feeling one, has the more classic pronged formation representing the Five Dhyani Buddhas in each direction, with what appear to be stylized markings that look like they might represent Fire. They’re closed (peaceful) prongs: open prongs mean something else.

I had stopped wearing these both a while ago, in an attempt to combat premature identification with a religion out of materialism, or a need to belong. What’s ironic is that I know at this point that it would be inappropriate to wear either of these to work: if it’s against the rules to visibly wear a cross, it’s against the rules to visibly wear this. (It can alienate patrons.)

But I can wear it where it can’t be seen. And although there is the possibility it won’t be recognized as a religious object, I have had it misread, often, as a Christian cross. That’s not really my goal, and I have thought of wearing a single vajra (a reminder of compassion) or a lotus flower (water always seeks the lowest point and mingles with everything; from that arises purity), instead.

I am really hoping those bugs aren’t mosquitoes…though they seem to have just moved (at about the same time I checked to make sure the window was closed).

It’s kind of funny for me; it’s like identity happens for me despite myself, and regardless of my intention. Just listening to myself is the biggest thing I have to deal with; listening, and resisting the urge to explain it all immediately.

(Which does sound like meditation.)

One point of this identity that I can’t easily change: rebirth (no essential “soul”) or reincarnation (with essential “soul”) are the only options after death which I can see as being realistic (granting that death is another kind of birth, into spirit). It’s been this way since I was about six or seven years old.

Otherwise, the question of, “where I came from,” is unanswered, and, “where I’m going,” doesn’t make sense (in a scenario where increasing numbers of souls constantly multiply and then are shipped off somewhere to spend the rest of eternity, somehow kept happy…for eternity. It only makes sense if time stops, and the moment is forever for them — or they exist outside of time and space, so that when seen from within space-time, they seem to last forever and be everywhere).

Not to say that spirits don’t exist…which I wouldn’t, having met a number of them. But I’m sure something goes on that I don’t know about, and which I won’t know about for a while (if I’m lucky). Part of wisdom may mean leaving unexplained, the unexplainable…at least when one knows they don’t know the answer. And can’t explain the answer to others in language, when they do know. Sometimes because no one who is asking knows enough to formulate the right questions.

It could be why there is relatively little speculation on the afterlife and metaphysics within Buddhism…at least, within early Buddhism. Or…the speculation that is there, doesn’t read so much as speculation, to me, because there’s a shared ground of assumption and understanding. Which I may have been trained to accumulate over multiple lifetimes.

“Those who speak don’t know, and those who know don’t speak,” makes sense, here.

I don’t think I would have come to this, except for my interactions with others who are very different from me and have been consistently different from me, for decades (some of whom are family). It just seems granted — to me — that we have differing histories beyond this life, and that impacts who we are, now. I’m not sure I can reconcile it all with training and conditioning within this lifetime…but, maybe.

(Im-)perfection, planning, and process

I sat down today with the idea of writing on my own creative process. This is more for me than it is for anyone else, but I’ll try and make it so that others can follow along.

Part of the reason for doing a Final project on Zen and Art, this last semester, was that I had sensed my own inability to enjoy (or engage) the artistic process, and to plan a piece to death before actually working on it at all. The idea I had of Zen was something around engaging with the process for the sake of the process, and fully living the process. I still don’t know if that’s accurate to reality.

Planning things to death runs contrary to the way I made art as a youth, which was to sit down with my materials and see what would come out of me that day. I really wouldn’t try to explain what I was doing to myself or anyone else until after the fact, when I’d make up a reason why I made it (in order to satisfy others, and it was always to satisfy others. Why can’t it just be? Why do I have to assign it a meaning? Can’t you imagine that yourself?).

With art, as with writing…historically, I’ve been tripped up by a lack of planning. This changed when I went for my AA in Art. Basically, it’s the lowest degree I could get, aside from a Certificate. Being so near to the completion of my first Master’s and looking forward to becoming a Librarian, though…continued education at the Master’s level in Studio Art and/or Art History is actually becoming a possibility. In turn, that would open up Librarianship posts in Museums, but from what I hear, the competition is tough and the compensation not so great.

That’s an offshoot, though, of what I’ve been trying to get at, here. Let me get back to the main point:

I think that what training I did get in Art, has somewhat derailed my own artistic process. Instead of sitting down and making a mark, and then another mark, and then another, without knowing (or caring, really) what I’m going to end up with, I was trained to visualize an end product and then somehow get there. This is counterproductive for me. It works for academic exercises, but as for actually generating art on my own, it is crippling.

The problem is that a work of art, when I start out with an idea of what I want it to be, never fully reaches the point I want it to reach. There’s the world of ideal perfection, and then there’s reality. And the two don’t really meet. By engaging an idea of what I want a piece to be, or, to say, I end up envisioning something more perfect than I could ever really make, possibly something more perfect than could ever actually exist in the physical world.

I’ve run into this on other levels. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly, though, I feel like I bumble along and run into things and reset my course accordingly, and the resulting path forms something truer to me than if I had set a destination of what I thought I wanted at some point, and made a beeline for it.

For example, if in 2002 I had decided that I was a transgender man and had transitioned to male, my life now would be entirely different. And it would not have been truer to who I actually am or what I actually want, than the place I’m at, now. The outside would change; the life would change. But it’s trading one set of setbacks for another. And even though it’s obviously superficial, who I would have become would still have the same core as I do now, though I’d probably be more conflicted.

The thing is, the way I envision myself now is something I’ve arrived at by a process of listening to myself, not something I tried to form myself into.

It’s like making a picture and having some teacher ask me what it is a picture of. It doesn’t matter. It came out of my living experience. Why are you asking me what it is a picture of? To gauge whether it is, “good,” or not (and why should I care if you think it’s, “good?” How does that positively impact my life)? What do you see? Because I bet it’s not what anyone else, sees. And I bet my giving a word to my experience that I’ve illustrated on paper doesn’t make it any clearer for you if you can’t see it now. Just own your experience and don’t reflect it back on me or my hypothetical intentions. Because I may not even consciously know my own intentions.

I’m sounding bitter. I’m also editing out a lot of curse words. I’ve been having mood issues since the semester ended and I started staying up way too late. I’ll be in bed before 3 AM, tonight. Promise.

Anyway, there seems to be the assumption of an intention to communicate which I’ve found over the years in academic circles. But maybe the best communication is at times, letting the work speak for itself, without trying to explain it. Sometimes ambiguity is best. Sometimes thinking in color rather than in greyscale or in black-and-white, is best.

Can I tell you why red-orange makes you feel different than green-blue? No. Do I know why I used red-orange instead of green-blue? You’re going to have to engage with that mystery yourself, just like the rest of us (including me). Don’t expect me to spoon-feed you dead words, and theory that probably doesn’t matter to anyone but me, in the hope that you’ll understand.

(No, I can’t remember anymore the source of the living word/dead word argument…I think it’s Taoist, though. Actually, I think it may be in the Tao Te Ching. I might have to look that one, up. “Dead words” are things that are spoken that can then be twisted around to say what they were not meant to say, losing their meaning; while “living words” are not necessarily spoken…they live through actions.)

To try and wind this down…I am pretty much set on trying to go back to the way I operated, artistically, before school (and grades) got in the way. This means being led more by intuition and just putting one foot in front of the other, rather than trying to visualize something in total and then attempting to make it, or “copy it,” from my mind.

After all, this is my artistic process. This is art for me, for my own health and refinement. Not for anyone else.

I’m not sure of the reality of being able to explain the way I work, though I’ve tried before. I also know watercolor isn’t necessarily the greatest medium to try this, within.

But what I do, doesn’t have to conform to realism. Nor does it have to be precise and tight.

It doesn’t have to be planned, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Right now, I just need to engage.

Cultural location and creative context: Part 2

Part 1 of this series, where I introduced the fact that I (surprisingly) have come to view myself as more Japanese-American than I thought I could be (as a multiracial person), is at this link. (At this point, I wish my thoughts had been more together when I wrote it! Also at this point: I realize that I don’t need to try to be more Japanese-American than I am.)

What I had thought of, but didn’t have time to relate in that post, was the concept of being, “grounded,” in some sort of definite culture. Going on the assumption that most artists in the past didn’t necessarily have a global/multicultural/metropolitan viewpoint (which might be wrong; I haven’t checked it out yet), I find myself thinking that it must have been easier for them to locate themselves within a cultural milieu.

Or, as I found myself thinking in one of my Art History classes, we don’t bash Michelangelo because he didn’t know anything about Chinese brush painting.

Of course, I can’t be certain about the factual certainty of that: but…is it clear? There are so many cultures worldwide, and all of them have their own traditions and ways of approaching the world. Being good at one way doesn’t mean one is a “Master,” because we live in an era where being a Master at one thing means having taken time away from something else (and that generally means not being too great at it).

As an example, I’m a fourth-generation Japanese-American, and have found myself trained (though minorly) in linoleum block printing (a.k.a. linocuts), which I learned in high school. I’m closer to American than I am to Japanese, but I have a ton of underlying family influences which make me different from majority Americans and are traceable to the culture of one side of my family’s diaspora. At the same time, my training is Western in nature.

On top of that, now that I think of it…is the other side of my parentage, which is where I get my mysticism. Where that originates (other than with my great-grandmother, and where she got it from), I don’t know. But I’m trying to work it into my thoughts that it is okay to be a little non-rational. 🙂

I was taught about linoleum block printing, but not woodblock printing. Thus, on initially encountering woodblock printing, I was ignorant of the vast differences between both techniques. I didn’t quite get a clue until trying to carve a block for the first time and realizing how differently wood behaves, than linoleum. It made me realize how skilled carvers had to have been, in order to create things so detailed and precise.

The Honolulu Art Museum has a rather famous collection of woodblock prints going back…a very long time, I would say over hundreds of years, at least from the ukiyo-e era forward through shin hanga and sosaku hanga to what might possibly reach modern mokuhanga? (–although that is a flash in the pan, comparatively.)

I’ve mentioned this before: while I was there I picked up a book titled Shin Hanga: The New Print Movement of Japan, text by Barry Till. I’m hoping the Reader will pick up on my last mention of this book; otherwise, I can hunt for it after I post this. (EDIT: my first mention of this book, is at this location.) In any case, I picked up the book because it reproduces a great number of color prints which have beautiful composition and flow. I had hoped that studying them could help me learn how to improve composition and color usage in my own projects.

What happened later is that somehow I began searching out information on mokuhanga (so far as I can tell, this is the modern version of Japanese woodblock printing). There are some sources existing on this; the one I found (and bought) was Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop by April Vollmer. Not realizing the difficulty of what I enamored to undergo, I set about collecting tools to use to draw my own prints.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but it seems obvious to me now: Japanese woodblock printing evolved within a relatively insular society. This means that there is a unique way of doing things. This also means that there is a unique, apparently self-contained way of doing things, which does not necessarily cross over with superficially similar methods of other cultures.

For example, there are special brushes used to disperse pigment over the surface of the wood block, which have to be prepared a certain way (the ends of the hairs have to be singed and grated against “dragon skin”, like a metal rasp; sharkskin was used prior). (Vollmer 83) This means — for a Westerner — if one wants to have the possibility of doing things precisely like professional Japanese artists do, one will have to go out of their way to find, buy, and prepare specialty brushes which aren’t widely available overseas (except as imports).

Of course, there is not really a point to a Westerner trying to mimic ancient techniques (except to preserve them), because for one thing, a lot of these prints were made in production workshops, not just by one single artist.

Sosaku hanga, a term used for “artist’s prints” (I am not sure that’s the direct translation, but it’s what I can remember and not find right now in Till — the book lacks an Index), differed from these and came about after the opening of Japan to the West. They focused more on the total control of the artist from concept through production of the finished print.

Before that time, the total control of the artwork being in one person’s hands, doesn’t seem to have been a concern; but it came to be felt that the spirit of the work was not as pure if the artwork was a collaboration. (I don’t know exactly where this idea originated, but I think I read it in Till.)

Of course, though; there is a big emphasis on collaboration and teamwork in Japanese culture, generally; whereas expressing individuality…I’m not entirely certain where that philosophical idea comes from. I would make a guess that it is someplace and sometime in Europe, and I’d check the Renaissance, first.

Anyhow, what I mean to get at is that we each have our own cultural locations, and I think they’re getting more complex. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can be more difficult to locate oneself in culture, if one happens to have a ton of differing cultural influences (not limited to one’s family, but including work, peers, community, food, religion, gender, philosophy…).

Having these cultures colliding means that generations like my own have choices about what techniques to employ and whether to employ them fully traditionally, or whether to mix our influences. There’s a choice between trying to preserve an old way of life and going on to make something entirely new, but still based on what came before. Innovate, I guess.

I read somewhere that it had been an ideal in some cultures to mimic what the artist saw. I believe this was in Six Names of Beauty by Crispin Sartwell.

“Art, both in Japan and in the West, is traditionally accounted for as a mimesis of the world…[yet] in suiseki, nature is used as an imitation of nature, earth of earth, reality of reality, truth of truth…Plato’s critique, in which he condemns representational arts as deceptive, is entirely out of place.” (Sartwell 119-120)

I think what’s holding me back within my art (particularly drawing and painting), is this idea of representation, of trying to copy what I see — but for what? Why? Why are things so important? Why are bodies so important? Physicality?

I think it’s because no one has really — directly, at least — taught me any other way to approach image-making.

I also think it’s because my education was lacking in philosophical breadth. And I didn’t realize I was lacking the information until I read something which had a message different from the one I was familiar with.

I am going to try and get back on the Zen train and read what I have, even though I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into when I embarked on the quest.

But I don’t think I’m Zen. I actually am doubting whether I still want to hang with Buddhist philosophy (though it does come in handy when I need a reality check). My draw to Zen occurred because I associated asymmetrical composition with wabi sabi, but I am thinking that this isn’t exactly accurate; I think the love for asymmetry predates wabi sabi. And I’m doubting anatman (the doctrine of no-self: conditional arising negates the need for a concept of a soul or identity), at this point.

What has been happening over the last few days has gotten me back to the point of thinking that what I experience is not my body. It is through my body, but it is not my body. The body is just a channel for something beyond.

And…now I’m talking like I’m philosophically Greek or (East) Indian…or a New Ager. Or a psychic/medium. Which…I can get into that, another time. Been there. (No offense intended to any of these groups!)

I just am starting to believe in souls, like I’ve started to develop a concept of evil, and I’m starting to develop a concept of Deity and the hereafter. And I’m thinking about what it means if everything I think I know is wrong. (Or, just some of it…)

WORKS CITED:

Sartwell, C. (2006). Six names of beauty. New York, NY: Routledge.

Till, B. (2007). Shin hanga: The new print movement of Japan. Portland, OR: Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

Vollmer, A. (2015). Japanese woodblock print workshop. Berkeley, CA: Watson-Guptill Publications.