The artist’s obligation (and we’re all artists)

I Have Something To Say


…and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves, 
asking “How can I reach the sea?” 
And I will pass to them, saying nothing, 
the starry echoes of the wave, 
a breaking up of foam and quicksand, 
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself, 
the grey cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea 
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

(Pablo Neruda, from “The Poet’s Obligation”; trans. A. Reid)

Every day every one of us enjoys, consciously or not, some form of art, “high” or “low” – something that emerged from the creative mind of another person. Music, TV shows, paintings or pictures on the walls of our places of work, even news articles are acts of creation, a type of art. In fact, when you think about it, much of the stuff of our daily lives has its origin in human inspiration.

That’s amazing, don’t you think? We are literally surrounded by the legacy of the labor of creativity.

And creativity is labor, if you want anything to come of it. Ideas are easy – manifesting them in reality rarely is. This is true of any kind of art, but I often think that writers are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to sharing their work with the world. Writing in any form – poetry, fiction, blogging – requires a significant time investment by the consumer. And in today’s world, even five minutes can seem significant.

Why don’t I read poetry? Because it takes too much effort – which translates into time. I’m lazy and want the instant gratification of prose, not the slow unfolding in my mind of the meaning of a series of words I’ve had to read a few times over to absorb and understand.

I realized today, reading the above poem by Neruda, what I am losing by not giving my time to poetry. It’s not what you would think. Sure, I’m missing out on the beauty of it. But that’s not what struck me when I looked up from my iPad and thought, “Ah, I get it. I understand what he’s saying.” Reading poetry is both a discipline and a devotion. You have to focus your mind, as in mediation, and you must read the poem several times at least. And through so doing, you honor the poet and his/her work. You are expressing a kind of love for the poet.

This is the real reason reading poetry is so difficult for me. Because it requires that I open my heart up to the poet’s soul, in a sense. Poetry is meaning distilled. It is intimate and immediate. There is no hiding from the words and their meaning. Poems – at least the modern kind that tend to be short – must be read in one go; there is no escape from their meter.

Poetry can be hard work to read, intellectually and emotionally. Not many people read it. Few buy it.

And yet, poets continue to write. Just as I have continued to write (my fiction but also this blog and my dissertation), though I have no audience or publications. And I often ask why I bother. Because writing, like reading, can be painful work. As novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro recently wrote about being a writer, “I cry every day.”

I think, though, that Neruda provides an answer. I have an obligation to share my words and the perspective they emerge from. Not for any specific reason. Not to get published, or even for more altruistic reasons like helping others. Simply because all of us, each one, has an obligation to share ourselves as best we can. I do this through words. Others do so through service, or parenthood, or activism. This is what being human is, and how we collectively create a world worth living in despite all the ugliness we see every day.

I don’t have any high purpose such as Neruda expresses in his poem, but his words have touched me. They brought back the beach vacation when I took the above photo – one of the last truly happy times I spent with my ex bf. Neruda’s obligation has been fulfilled through me. But his poem also made me cognizant of my own obligation. My writing matters, even if few people read it. Because it’s my way of sharing who and what I am in the best way I can.


Making bad assumptions

 Sad Bird


“Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions…. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.” (Don Miguel Ruiz)

Writing a dissertation is a long, difficult, demoralizing slog. You are basically writing a book no one cares about and no one will read. And when you hand a chapter in to your “editor” (advisor), he will forget you did so, need to be reminded, and send it back with soul-destroying criticism such as “it doesn’t fit into your larger project and it’s sloppy.”

This happened to me a couple weeks ago. And my brain broke. Writing that chapter took all that I had. I was proud of it and excited I’d finally produced something. I’d warned my advisor that it was a very rough draft.

I felt that he was telling me I was wasting his time and he no longer cared about the project. I wanted to quit right then and there. In fact, in that moment I thought I had no choice – I assumed that was the underlying message in his email. I have often felt like I should quit, but this was the first time I felt my advisor was not behind me anymore.

I tend to worry a lot about what other people think about me – even though I pretend I don’t. But knowing I had my advisor’s support was an important mental construct for me in this process of doing the diss. Even if no one else cared, at least he did.

As I said, my brain broke. I felt it break. There was a shudder, and then everything stopped moving and fell into a jumbled heap somewhere down past the cerebellum, where the brain stem attaches to the spinal cord. It got really quiet inside my head. There was simply nothing in there anymore, except the one thought that this was it, I couldn’t bear any more.

And for a few days, I couldn’t. But slowly the pieces of my mind reassembled, because the human body and spirit are resilient. I reread my advisor’s email. I wrote him an email apologizing for sending him a “sloppy” chapter and explained that for me it was an important step forward just to get something down on paper. I asked him to clarify what he meant by his other comments.

Over the course of the next week we sent a few emails back and forth while I tried to understand his criticisms. And today, finally, I got it. And I see that it was not my ideas he was criticizing, it was their presentation. I can fix the problem.

I see now that the assumptions I made – that he no longer cared and that my project was a failure – were completely false. He patiently answered all my questions until his thoughts were clarified for me. And the only way my diss will be a failure is if I quit.

The experience made me realize how many assumptions I make in my daily life based on incomplete evidence and my own mixed-up perspective of the world. It’s like that picture above. The bird isn’t sad, of course. In every other shot I took of him he has his head up, looking around, interested in the world. And I just as easily could have titled it “Bird Looking Down.” But I’m a writer, after all, and I deal in imagination. It’s just that sometimes it gets the better of me.

Are all emotions, even compassion, essentially selfish?

So an update on my quest to make Happy Photo the actual theme of my blog, since (almost) every post I’ve been doing lately is a Happy Photo post. Nope, can’t do it. Or not officially, as a title of my blog or anything. There is a photo studio with that name already. However, I still intend to begin most of my posts with a photo and quote, as I have been doing. The posts will no longer be labelled Happy Photo. But their purpose is to feature a single photo I have taken that makes me happy, and to use that photo and accompanying quote as a starting point for some thoughts on a particular topic. (And now that I’ve figured this out, there will be fewer annoying words before the photos : ).

Electric Water


“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” (Dalai Lama)

Let me begin by saying I highly respect the Dalai Lama. I was once lucky enough to attend a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in which he was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He gave a speech, and had a giggle like a small child’s. It was impossible (at least for me) not to feel profoundly impacted by his presence and message.

But I call bullshit on the above quote.

The other day there was an upsetting incident involving my ex bf. I could have responded with anger or kindness. I chose kindness, because I recognized the emotions behind his actions. They are the same that I feel: loss, grief, regret, anger, etc. All the stuff you feel when you end a relationship. The incident was incredibly distressing and even somewhat frightening to me, but mostly I felt sadness for him and myself, and for the loss we have both suffered. I responded in a way that I hoped would alleviate some of the weight of what he was feeling.

I admit I have always felt an excess of compassion for him. Perhaps because he so seems to need it.

I’ll also admit that there have been many, many times in the past when I responded with the opposite of compassion to him, and I feel deep regret for those times. Enacting compassion in relationships is something I have had to work on and learn.

I also admit that in practicing compassion for him, I feel a need for something in return. I’m not sure exactly what. Maybe recognition that even though I reacted in a kind way, I still had reason to feel upset myself. Maybe some compassion in return. Heck, maybe I expected the gates of heaven to open and angels to sing in praise of my generosity. Yeah, ugly, I know. But this is the point of this post. Was I really being compassionate, or was I acting kindly in hopes of gaining something for myself?

It should come as no surprise that the incident did not resolve in a way that alleviated my own distress. And I ended up feeling aggrieved.

I started wondering. Are all emotions and pursuant behaviors selfish? Is there such a thing as true compassion? I know I felt genuine compassion for him, but in acting upon that, it seems that I may have screwed it up.

Maybe only people like the Dalai Lama are capable of true compassion, in both thought and deed.

Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I did the best I could. I did act with good intentions, even if I was hoping some of that goodness would come back my way. And maybe that’s human. And at least I can see that and own it.

But I’m sorry, Dalai Lama. Practicing compassion did not make me happy. And it appears that my ex bf did not even recognize what I did as compassion, so I can’t say it really made him happy either.

Or maybe I misunderstand what compassion really is. Maybe it’s not about kindness or feeling sympathy for someone who has harmed you. But if it’s not that, what on earth is it?

Still so much to learn, still so far to go.

Receiving love (Happy Photo)

I’m making a couple changes to my Happy Photo series. First, the photo and accompanying quote will be featured at the beginning of the post, because it seems many of my visitors are actually photographers. I am surprised and flattered by this, and have discovered some inspiring photo blogs through the “likes” I get on my photo posts. (Thank you for the likes!)

Another change may come soon – I like doing Happy Photo so much I’m considering making it the standard form of my blog posts. I haven’t quite figured out how I will do this, though. So stay tuned. Anyway, on to the photo!

Orchid Buds


“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” (Fred Rogers)

I believe that true goodness exists in some people. All of us are capable of goodness, but once in awhile someone comes along who expresses it in a way that inspires others. They are the ones who are not afraid to show the world that they are kind and gentle. They really see people and really listen. And just through such seemingly simple actions, they bring grace into the world. But these people usually do not see it this way. Because they don’t think of themselves as great or special. While the world speaks of them in terms of the goodness they give to others, these people believe that they are the ones who are receiving goodness. They value the essential humanness in others so much, and love others so much, that being able to serve is their blessing.

Many people express this kind of goodness sometimes, or with certain people in their lives. But it’s rare for someone to actually embody such goodness. I think Fred Rogers comes as close as anyone I can think of. I mean Fred Rogers the man, of which Mister Rogers was only a part. There is a beautifully written profile of him, written in 1998 for Esquire magazine, that will give you an idea of why I think so highly of him.

Fred Rogers came to mind for my photo quote because yesterday morning I received an act of such kindness, a kindness I so needed that it felt like tenderness, it got me thinking about giving and receiving grace. And by grace I mean love.

It happened after a morning coffee with three friends from a writers’ group I used to attend. I stopped going to meetings some time ago, but recently reconnected with one of these friends and she suggested we all get together. The four of us, though we were not the only members of the writers’ group, had been a sort of core of it, and our rapport together is wonderful and has been since the day I first met them. It’s very rare for me to feel comfortable in groups – I’m a one-on-one type of person. So these people are pretty special to me.

We all got caught up, and I told them about the bad feedback I’d received on the dissertation chapter I handed in to my advisor last month. It was a devastating experience, because I’ve struggled for so long just to get anything down on paper, and I was proud of the work I’d done, and excited about it. My friends listened, sympathized, and offered suggestions. They took my feelings seriously. That felt good.

But one of the guys seemed to understand that this was more than just a difficult experience for me. I’m not sure if he knows I’m in a difficult period generally, which makes things that much harder to deal with, but he showed me such sympathy I wondered if he intuitively sensed just how crushed I was by the feedback. As we walked to our cars he said something that really surprised me. He said that he knows this feels not just painful, but embarrassing.

He’s right. I feel very embarrassed that my work was not seen as worthy or good. I feel ashamed. But I hadn’t said that to my friends. I was amazed by this guy’s sensitivity, and overwhelmed by his kindness in telling me he understood my feelings and felt badly for me. He offered to help me in any way he could, and gave me a hug.

This, people. This is what I needed. To be acknowledged. To be seen. To be shown some compassion and tenderness. To have another person name my feelings and feel them with me. As I drove away I realized that I had just received grace from this guy. Love. I was given an enormous blessing. It felt all the more significant because my life has seemed so lacking in blessings lately.

So thank you, world, for giving this one to me.

The moments we can’t see (Happy Photo)

As always, if the photo is why you’re here scroll on down!

The photo today is what I call a “lucky shot.” Which means that I lack the skills to actually capture photos like this one, but somehow managed to do it anyway. As always, it is minimally processed.

I’ve been wanting to post this photo for awhile, but it’s a difficult one to find a quote for. Unlike so many of my other favorite shots, this one doesn’t seem to lend itself easily to any special interpretation. It’s just a neat photo of a moment in time that is usually not visible to the human eye. Technology helps us capture and freeze such moments (in this case, the moment before a wave comes crashing down), which is cool, but I’m not really sure there’s any deep meaning there. Ultimately all I could come up with is that there are millions of moments like this in life that we can’t or don’t see. Life goes by, we miss a lot, we need to stay in the moment and try to enjoy it…blah blah blah. Yeah, it’s all been said ad nauseam by everyone from Lao-Tzu to basically every mommy blogger.

So I started meditating on the photo. What else could it mean in terms of where I am in my life right now? As those who have been reading know, I’ve been struggling. One difficult experience after another adds itself to the pile. A difficult breakup, an unexpected and devastating medical diagnosis, and unfortunate experience with a scary guy who seemed like he might become a stalker, bad feedback from my favorite advisor on a dissertation chapter. And then, guys, the icing: I owed money on my taxes this year.

I’m keeping all this in perspective. I’m not saying I haven’t cried buckets these last few weeks, but I’m cognizant of my blessings: parents who are healthy, ditto my sister, I can pay my mortgage, I have friends, and I am making some money here and there, and so far, it’s been enough.

But still, I find myself asking those questions we all ask when going through challenges. Why is this happening? Why is it happening to me? Why is it happening now? What should I do?

And there are no answers. Not really.

Those who believe in free will would say it’s the unfolding of consequences of all the choices I’ve made along the way, and that I must use my free will to change or fight my circumstances. Those with faith in God would say that it is God’s will, which we cannot understand, but must accept. Daoists would say something surprisingly similar: that the universe unfolds as it should, and rather than fighting this, we should seek to be in harmony with it – go with the flow, so to speak. A scientist friend of mine believes the meaning of life is to fight against entropy – so I suppose his advice would be to do what I can to create some order out of the chaos, to salvage what I can to keep going.

I don’t subscribe fully to any particular spiritual or other lens for viewing life, though some appeal to me more than others. But what all have in common is this idea that we can’t stop bad things from happening. They vary on whether the correct approach is acceptance or action.

I’m not against taking action. But I feel, intuitively, that now is a time for me to practice acceptance. To sit and listen. To practice inaction. Once I realized this, the photo below took on a different meaning for me.

There’s a scene in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love in which she has a dream that a Yogi guru meets her on a beach and tells her to figure out how to stop the ocean waves from rolling in. So she starts drawing up all kinds of plans, but finally gives up in frustration. She does not possess the skills to figure out how to do it. Then she hears the Yogi laughing, and he basically ridicules her (but in a kind guru way) for ever thinking she could possibly stop the ocean (p. 146).

So for today’s Happy Photo I’ve picked a Lao-Tzu quote, because his philosophy I think best captures this idea: that the world unfolds according to a way (the Dao) that we cannot stop, and the best thing to do as the waves come crashing down is to relax into them rather than fear or fight them. Then, eventually, things will work out on their own or we will know what action to take that is in harmony with the Dao – and this will lead to happiness and peace.


“Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?”

(Lao-Tzu, trans. S. Mitchell)


Happy Photo

(Scroll to the end to just see the photo! What follows is a brief update on my life and some info on my photography equipment and methods.)

Time for another happy photo! The main reason is that I don’t have the energy for a full post. And I’m kind of excited about this series. It gives me a chance to really use my photos and impute meaning onto them, rather than just looking at them from time to time.

So you may recall I mentioned in a recent post that I was probably breaking up with my bf. Well, it happened. As is often the case with these things, much of the pain was felt in the months and weeks preceding the actual event. But it still hurts a lot. I was with him for over ten years. Since my twenties, before I was a real grownup.

It didn’t happen because of anything horrible he did, or I did. It was just time for me to move forward with my life. I’m in a transition stage. I’m aiming high. But I have to tell you, right now I feel like one big fail. I’m weeks behind on reading my New Yorkers. Weeks, people. I had a lunch date a few days ago, and spent that evening drinking wine, watching A Letter from Fred, and crying so much I needed a towel to mop up the tears. (Please, Internet, please take that video down.)

Yeah, things are tough right now. Hence…happy photo! We all need one sometimes! For those who are not interested in the actual mechanics of photography, go ahead and scroll down now. I’m going to spend some time discussing my equipment and methods, just because.

A couple years ago I bought a used Nikon D5000 from a good friend. It’s a pretty good camera, what I think would be considered just under the professional-level model. It came with two lenses, the kit lens (a standard 18-55mm) and a telephoto zoom (55-200mm). Up until recently I used the kit lens exclusively, but was not totally satisfied with its performance. It’s not a high-quality lens, and in my opinion the images it produces aren’t very sharp (this could be because I’m not a very good photographer, though). Last month the zoom on that lens got stuck between 18-24mm. So I started using the telephoto, which has turned out to be great because I like the shallow depth-of-field effect produced with more zoom, and I’m now able to get some good wildlife shots. I eventually want to buy a 35mm prime lens, but I’m waiting until I can afford both the lens and an intermediate photography course. The only other piece of equipment I use is a polarizing filter I bought for the kit lens.

I shoot mainly in manual mode, because I’m trying to learn technique. So far the only controls I really know how to use are ISO, aperture, and shutter speed, but when I was out in Colorado recently I learned how to set my own white balance for taking pictures of snow. I also play around with the flash and exposure settings on occasion. So I guess you could say I know how to use most of the important controls, but not particularly well. For example, I still cannot take a landscape shot with everything in focus. Fortunately I don’t really like landscape shots anyway.

My favorite types of shots are close-ups with blurry backgrounds (bokeh). I also tend to like shots of interesting groupings of objects, or single objects against contrasting backgrounds. So far I have not had any interest in shooting people (haha). I use minimal processing for my photos, in iPhoto. Generally I increase contrast to bring out color, lighten or darken as needed, and sometimes pump up the color (I like the saturated look). On some photos I increase the definition, because I think it can impart a cool look for certain subjects.

Okay, on to the photo! I took this shot on the La Chua trail, right after my party was rescued by rangers when a gator crawled across the path and stopped, blocking us totally from getting past (and he grinned at us maliciously the whole time while we waited for the rangers to show up). It was certainly an adventure for my visiting friends, who had been hoping they might perhaps “catch a glimpse” of a gator on the hike.

I like this photo because it reminds me how clumsy large birds can look when they try to take off, which reminds me that nature (or God, if you are a believer) did not design us to be graceful or look good when meeting the challenges of life, but did design us to take them on.


“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” (Henry Ford)


Happy Photo

(Scroll to end if you just want to see the photo! What follows is an intro to this series of photo features I am calling “Happy Photo.”)

All my posts lately (and by “all my posts” I mean the few I’ve managed over the last six months) have been pretty weighty, mainly because I’m struggling. It feels good to connect to other people who are experiencing similar struggles (i.e. depression and anxiety). And I hope there are some people out there reading my posts because they want to understand these kinds of struggles better. Because unless you experience such things personally, it can be really, really difficult to imagine what it is like.

I’m in a difficult period of life. I went through a similar phase of feeling stuck, angry, depressed, and hopeless ten years ago, when I was in my late twenties. Maybe it comes around every decade. But the truth is, there are many issues I had then that just never got dealt with. Which is fine. I wasn’t ready. Now I am. So that’s where I’m at. Wondering where my life is going, what I want, what I need, how I want to change. This includes reevaluating the 10+ years I’ve had with my bf and whether I want to continue that relationship (the answer is, sadly, looking like a no). This is extremely painful for me, as I’m sure it would be for anyone.

I’m dealing the best I can. And I have faith that this is a process of learning and growth. What I am experiencing is growing pains, and I will emerge in a happier place. (In my worst moments, though, I feel that everything is at an end and can’t bear the thought of more decades of life – don’t worry, though, I’m not gonna off myself!)

What I mean to say is that while I do have many, many hours that are absolute hell, and I don’t always cope in ways that make me feel good about myself, I also attempt to get what pleasure I can from my daily life. My creatures are a big part of this. I go outside to throw the ball and enjoy my gorgeous backyard. I snuggle them and get kisses. I have my few good friends, whom I am increasingly trusting with what’s going on in my head and heart. Ditto my family members. I have my writing.

And, in the last year or so, I have my photography. I bought a used DSLR and a couple lenses from a friend, and am slowly learning how to use it. I’m not great at the technical aspects, but I have a good eye for subject and composition. I love sharing my photos. I’ve been doing so on Facebook, which is not really an ideal venue, and am thinking of starting an Instagram stream (I also have a separate blog for them but don’t update regularly enough). But I also thought it might be nice to share some here. I do share many in my regular posts, but I want to feature single photos that I particularly like, accompanied by a few beautiful words – probably quotes, but perhaps sometimes my own. I want to call this series of posts “Happy Photo,” because photography is one of the few activities that has brought me genuine happiness recently.

So here’s my first photo in this series, one I took at the botanical gardens I visited last week with some good friends who came all the way down from Philly to visit me. I’ve always been fascinated by bright sunlight illuminating brief places among shadows, but only recently realized that the visual beauty of this, in the particular way that I see it, is something I can accurately capture on camera.

Light and Dark Waterfall

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” (Emerson)