Dial M for Meaning

Hello dear friends! Just tuning in after a year of migration to assure you that I’m still here and doing well, and I hope you are too. I would like to share my thoughts with you on the imperilled stature and untapped potential of the arts these days – at least the kind I dabble in. In desperately searching for meaning whilst in pandemic isolation I trust I haven’t surrendered entirely to magical thinking, an admitted weakness of mine. Begging your indulgence, I’ll open this e-pistle with a line from one of my favourite poets and a fellow magical thinker, Theodore Roethke, who without a flicker of doubt, assures us …

in dark times the eye begins to see

My venerable sister Pat, possibly contemplating scripture or words like Roethke’s, took up painting-by-number for the first time at 84 years of age. The novelty of this decision inspired me to select images from a collection of Mystery Paintings originating in the Monkey’s Tale Centre and the Step-by-Step Studio in Sri Lanka, between 2005-2015 with the idea of marketing a sample series of Paint-by-Number Mystery Paintings like Dark Doorway (opposite) which could help support the studios in Sri Lanka, as well as the Butterfly Garden in Batticaloa.

People in Batti like to dream big even though – or possibly because – they are still coping with the trauma of the war and these days, like everybody else on the planet, with the second coming of Covid-19. Our Stupid School branch in Toronto, aka Falling Sky Studio, could use a boost too. It keeps juddering along zombie-like between life and death and may need a shot of Walter Reed’s remdesivir / dexamethasone cocktail we’ve been hearing about in the news.

The truth is that Falling Sky Studio, while stalled mid-pandemic, still has a pulse. Its art classes will return someday. They are recognized balm for young people in a world battered and bruised by war in places like Syria and Yemen, or by near total eco-collapse in places like Bangladesh and Sub-Saharan Africa. These kids intuit and understand first-hand how their elders, in trying to escape the terror of a history and homeland in flames, may have lost compass and settled their families in a deeper grave than the one they left. A desperate need to arrive home, and never have to leave again, is everyone’s fervent prayer.

Since Canada has been so accommodating as offer the homeless shelter, why would we abandon them once they get here? We have a responsibility, not easily shirked without shame, to help young people explore the abundant homeland of their hearts, confusing and contradicted as that territory may feel. It’s not just about becoming Canadian. It’s about being human in the fullest sense of the word and finding meaning for themselves. We owe them nothing less.

21.1 In Pandemonium, Prophecy

An old Chong adage applies here: “In pandemonium find prophecy”, meaning the thread of a story which will carry you home when you feel lost no matter how adverse the circumstances may seem. But you have to believe.

I expect we’d have to sell thousands of Mystery-Paint-by-Number sets to achieve our noble, if somewhat delusional, goal but when a fundamental sense of meaning disappears from life you grasp at straws because you’ve got to start again somewhere, anywhere, even with an insane idea like this. Mystery Painting Paint-by-Number kits may have been a mad idea born of a mad mind at a mad time but we need to begin again somewhere so why not with Mystery Painting Paint-by-Number kits?

I reckoned Mystery Painting paint-by-number enthusiasts would haphazardly wander into the real deal, Mystery Painting itself. If they can find an amenable space they could share original images and stories with new friends, in small units of four people, observant of all local pandemic public health protocols.

The unfolding images inevitably create an inter-psychic bridge between individuals, and more fundamentally between spirit and matter. In other words, each painter will find for him or herself a story thread through their own labyrinth or, if you wish, mind field. They are free to move forward, backward, sideways, or in any direction they please. Only they can divine meaning in the tangled snail trail of paint they leave behind them on canvas.

Reflecting upon all this, I’ve decided to drop the whole idea of Paint-by-Number preliminaries and will take refuge in the sublime intricacies of Mystery Painting itself once again. Given adequate financial support and an agreeable venue, I will gladly extend an invitation for others to join me in the practice.

21.2  In Mayhem, Meaning

It was thirty-seven years ago that I consciously committed to cultivating poetic imagination in kids challenged with disability and chronic illness at the Spiral Garden in Toronto. The methods we developed at Spiral Garden were later adapted to suit local conditions in the Butterfly Peace Garden in wartime Sri Lanka and Mango Tree Garden in post-genocide Cambodia.

This is when and where we discovered something completely original, a seed practice called Mystery Painting, which combined silent meditation, art, story creation and dialogue. It allowed participants to give form to the unconscious energies and impulses that directed, or misdirected, their lives. Through cultivation of intuition and imagination they could see what they really cared about and leave behind what belittled and ensnared them.

The time has now come to bring this vision back where it began in Toronto and share it with young people from all over the planet who now live in our GTA urban calliope and whose sanity is challenged every moment by having to deal with the combined traumatic effects of trans-cultural migration, the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, climate crisis, teen angst and digital dementia in one little human body that’s not at all certain of itself. Is there a better way to face fear and mediate looming social anarchy than to invite young people to source their own prophetic imaginations by Mystery Painting? If there is, I’d like to know.

In general these days there are two viable ways to cope successfully with identity loss: playing dead or playing the game. Sleuthing down the Garden Path involves the experience of chain reaction episodes of self-negation, self acceptance, and self-transcendence against the blue sky backdrop of oblivion. It is nothing less than a re-enactment of the Hero’s Journey Joseph Campbell describes leaping haphazardly through danger, toil and snares into a rabbit’s hole of revelation one cannot describe without wonder in words one immediately forgets.

Most of us don’t have the patience to entertain these fantasies as our full time Covid-19 job, nor do we want to risk our own or others health, but what alternatives are there, besides allowing ourselves to be seduced by the ubiquitous two-dimensional screen? Can we not find more meaningful ways to connect with one another, Covid compromised or not, without resorting exclusively to social media? How else will we survive the global lobotomy we consent to undergo as a matter of routine every time we log onto a computer. A precarious fault line has opened between our mental and physical wellbeing with this pandemic which no amount of tweeting and texting will resolve.

Our addiction to hi-tech self-harm feeds directly into the Covid-19 mental miasma and results in quantum amplification of the effects of loneliness already epidemic in our communities as screens replace-person-to-person contact. Some people say the sense of isolation and being cut off from loved ones is the worst thing about Covid.

From watching TV and the Internet we know that democracy is dying, killed off by political hucksters in collusion with the very medium that informs us of their dreadful deeds in ceaseless waves of “Breaking News”. We live, not in a democracy but in a kakistocracy, from the Greek “kakis” for “the worst”, or “shit hole”, as some would have it.

Many, having given up hope, sink in the sludge of depression and despair. Others, having torn off their face masks, take up arms and riot in the streets of America. Ten months into the pandemic people are saying they’d rather die than carry on with the masked ghost dance. Scientific studies predict two, maybe three, more years of public health regimentation worldwide, plus another year for universal dissemination of a reliable vaccine. Some say the pandemic is here to stay. What we have now or worse will become the new normal. So how can we best make use of this time?

Socrates is reported to have advised a dear friend on his death bed. “Practice and cultivate the arts, Crito.” In the Garden we say “Presence in Poiesis as the Practice of Peace” but it means the same thing. Poiesis means flow – the the endless flow of information, imagination and lives into eternity.

21.3 Don’t Listen to a Lockdown Loony

You heard me! I said, ”Don’t listen to me!” I’m raving like a lunatic. But do listen to Socrates and my wise old Sister Ms. Pat. Practice and cultivate the arts. Enrol and start tuition in a Stupid School near you today! Think about it. No matter how smart you are, no one’s too smart for the Stupid School. In fact the smarter you are the more you need it.

I must admit, however, that Stupid Schools are not easy to find and this one, Falling Sky Studio, is no exception. It’s a little like the hedge schools in Ireland during centuries of British occupation. They’re there, but only the fairies know where. If you want to know more your can contact me in the nearest hedge row.

To be clear, I’m not saying collective practice of the arts is the one and only answer to the present public health crisis but it does add a valuable component, particularly in the area of mental heath, that social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands alone do not address. Why not use a palette of contemplative practices such as those offered by the our Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum to engage with a more soulful vision of human development? Maybe we will find can meaning in this mayhem beyond the hustle and hype of our pre-pandemic lives.

Art is, for the most part a useless passion, which is why we love it so much. It’s useless the way a falling leaf is useless or birdsong at the break of day. We come and go in this life from one unknown to the next. Then it’s over. If art exists for any purpose it’s to inspire deeper faith, hope, love and insight into the human journey. The Japanese poet, Sengai, described it this way:

To what can I compare this life of ours? Even before I can say it is like a lightening flash or a dewdrop, it is no more.

Can we not set aside space and time to give art a chance to work it’s magic in our lives, like it did in ours in Sri Lanka at the Butterfly Peace Garden during a time of war and the tsunami? What we discovered there is that we have to focus if we want to do the hocus-pocus. In other words, we have to dedicate real time and space for transformation of consciousness, facing gods and demons up and down the day like weather. We must learn to dream while we still have life in these bones, then walk our dreams proudly down the promenade into the broad light of day. Art is the practice of dreaming aloud. And dreaming aloud is a deeply inventive act that may seem like madness to most people.

Mystery Painting and other practices of the Garden Path foster a renewed sense of connection, community and creative capacity by replacing fear with poetic imagination and a sense of purpose. These practices flourish best in fully embodied presence to one another not just as faces on a screen which has now zoomed in to become the new normal.

Given circumstances these days with Covid-19 we acknowledge the folly of gathering in large groups indoors and thus we accept the current need for screen classes, or a mix of screen and in-person classes, but we also bear in mind the paradox of hi-tech teaching, which is: the impossibility for one soul to touch another deeply via remote learning. May it never become the ‘new normal’.

Covid-19 is what the ancient Celts called the bogeyman’s blessing or what today’s Tibetan teachers today call an obstacle blessing, both of which challenge us to transcend ourselves in unprecedented ways. “Not till we have lost the world,” said the poet Henry David Thoreau, “do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

While unconvinced that a stopgap cure will arrive on time to slow the ascending suicide curve, especially among youth, I am optimistic that we can and will surface from our pandemic panic and digitally enabled narcosis mainly through creative collaboration with real people in real time and space. There is so much to learn about loving and taking care of one another and the practice of the arts helps us with that. Inuit wisdom has an arctic way of expressing the promise of our predicament:

What lies behind us and what lies in front of us is tiny compared to what lies inside us.

What it all comes down to now is small, focused and responsible social actions that make our lives as real, meaningful and safe as possible during these monumentally surreal and unsafe times.

Poho / The Jewel on John Street / Thanksgiving / 2020 / Toronto