27 March 2014 § Leave a comment
by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell
The road from intensity to greatness
passes through sacrifice.
For a long time he attained it in looking.
Stars would fall to their knees
beneath his compelling vision.
Or as he looked on, kneeling,
his urgency’s fragrance
tired out a god until
it smiled at him in its sleep.
Towers he would gaze at so
that they were terrified:
building them up again, suddenly, in an instant!
But how often the landscape,
overburdened by day,
came to rest in his silent awareness, at nightfall.
Animals trusted him, stepped
into his open look, grazing,
and the imprisoned lions
stared in as if into an incomprehensible freedom;
birds, as it felt them, flew headlong
through it; and flowers, as enormous
as they are to children, gazed back
into it, on and on.
And the rumor that there was someone
who knew how to look,
stirred those less
stirred the women.
Looking how long?
For how long now, deeply deprived,
beseeching in the depths of his glance?
When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home—
the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom
moody around him, and in the avoided mirror
once more the room, and later
from the tormenting bed
then in the air the voices
discussed, beyond comprehension,
his heart, which could still be felt;
debated what through the painfully buried body
could somehow be felt—his heart;
debated and passed their judgment:
that it did not have love.
(And denied him further communions.)
For there is a boundary to looking.
And the world that is looked at so deeply
wants to flourish in love.
Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.
Learn, inner man, to look at your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.
16 March 2014 § Leave a comment
Tonight, a relatively famous woman who writes riddles on her van asked me, where does the name ‘Structured Roots’ come from?
It was nighttime, and the parking lot was slowly emptying. Through huge, open garage doors, one could see young people scaling the chalk-covered walls of The Circuit. Muffled hip-hop beat down the chatter. Tiffany Hensley let the question hang in the air as she pulled out her smartphone to check the website. I did not seem to lose her attention.
“That’s kind of a story,” I replied, as I do when I don’t know an answer, or to stall for time as I make one up.
“Made you think,” she said. That’s her purpose in life. The reason for the riddles on the van, penned in permanent marker, is “to get more people to think more.” Across the whiteboard of the Sprinter van, in a slew of handwriting styles: a list of Amazing Facts, a chess board, a misquoted riddle from The Hobbit that still begs the right answer.
“Well, it ended up on the back of a notebook about 11 years ago…” I started.
Yeah, what? Tell the story right, Sean.
“When he was 16, my best friend killed himself,” I started again, watching her face. She didn’t respond. “Months later, I was writing in a spiral notebook in the living room of his mother, and sketched the words on the back, in wavy, root-like letters.”
None of this answered her question. In sooth, the words meant nothing to me, the ramblings of a young poet. She perused a beading website called Structured Roots. “Is this your site?”
“I guess I have neither,” I said abruptly.
She looked up. “Oh, is that it?”
I stared past the white fluorescent street lamps, mouth agape, into Portland’s sepia-toned sky. For years the title was just something on the back of a notebook that later entitled a Google Pages site whose link I rarely shared. For lack of something better. Ask my first editor – I was never good at titling anything.
And now, my first day back in Portland, the only place besides Alaska I’ve felt homesick for, friends’ Welcome Home messages unread in my inbox, home no longer a moldy hotel in India but a cozy basement lit warmly by rope lights and Buddha’s calm half-smile, and I realized that my life had neither structure nor roots; in fact, I’d consciously avoided both, tore them up and apart when I detected them, packed up and tramped off when they threatened my nomadism.
Tiffany had just taught a workshop in the climbing gym aimed toward climbers who “want to have stronger minds” – Concentrate and repeat positive thoughts; Mind over Body; What you think directs reality. In the climbing world, which is driven more by ego and physical accomplishment than meditation and strength of will, these ideas seem novel. Simultaneously, it’s Hippietalk 101, the mental art work of yogis, circus performers, festivalers and many people with whom I consort. I said none of this, because although I know some of these typical law-of-attraction tenets as truth, I don’t necessarily integrate or apply them.
As we spoke, one of her students approached Tiffany in the same dreamy, I-want-more-from-you-but-don’t-know-to-say way I have hung around teachers, workshop facilitators, and beautiful women after they said I can definitely change my world – for me, the fanfare represents only partial gratitude. It says loudly, often sans reciprocation, what else can you offer me?
The beauty of having a blog for me is multi-layered: first, it’s not a notebook – there’s less risk of losing what I write, and it does not weigh me down. When I write something, I publish it to the interwebs, and have little control who or what reads it or where it ends up – a constant lesson in letting go. The blog is in itself a structure of expression, where I am my own artist, editor and accountability officer, typist, secretary. Purer, perhaps, that I am not paid, receive little feedback, no deadlines. As for my roots, they are “in the cloud,” as the saying goes, their rightful place, accessible from anywhere and limitless in potential.
11 March 2014 § 4 Comments
My last supper in India: the upper room of a tattoo studio, King Circle, Mumbai. Fish curry and homemade chapatti – and two new dishes I’ve not heard of, even after two months in this country – a sign of only just landing. A mother’s steel food containers sit on a rolling office chair, three young men hunched over them, eating with our fingers. Yogesh the artist smiles humbly at my excitement.
“You like the food,” he asks, or says. In India, I can rarely detect a tonal difference between statements, demands, questions. The artist intern, I’ve forgotten his name three times and am now embarrassed to ask, leans over me to dip chapatti in the veg. “And the piece?”
I’m radiating happiness. Mumbai has been only good to me, this shop a sweet icing spread by getting lost in a district of colonial manors, technology institutes, and modern apartment buildings carved like Pharaohs’ tombs. I have no idea where I am, which is at least consistent with the rest of the trip.
And it doesn’t matter. The tattoo was perfect, a realization of a year and a half of touring mediocre or wildly egotistical ink factories when I wanted little more than a good font and an artist who was stoked on it, too.
It figures I’d get my first piece abroad. In India, no less, hours before boarding a plane to Singapore. The next afternoon, Bali.
“No seawater for 15 days,” Yogesh says. This is a definitive statement, I can tell, but argue anyway: But I’m going to Bali!
“Ten days then. You don’t want it infected. Believe me.”
Humility and art illuminate this man’s smile. He’s six months older than I, a motorcycle adventurer and successful business owner. His art style sings graffiti blues, peacock feather filigree and abstract shadows that could be trumpets or a woman’s hands – simple, elegant, as close to the poetic images in my mind as I’ve seen.
I came in on a hunch. Leo Tattoos lives between the humid dinge and grime of Mumbai’s metropolitan sprawl. I was lost, blocks from my last reference point, when I looked through a glass door at the bald head of Moses. Something, perhaps the oppressive heat, told me to go inside.
Moses had one-inch plugs in his ears, a thick black beard, and a head tattoo of an ancient warrior’s bone blade. He was a miniature version of two different men I’ve known, and when I think of the trio, I see uncanny resemblances across bloodlines and nations, native and diaspora. Moses, a kind man set to be married to a Swiss girl, made me a pair of rosewood earrings from scratch – cut the pieces from a ruler-sized slab of Indian rosewood, sat on the floor and filed the wood LEGOs down to smooth plugs.
While he whittled, Yogesh and I talked art. The studio emanated inspiration. A bike wheel, axled to the computer desk, spun nonchalantly as he cruised the web for photos. The black cupboard doors are covered in childish carvings, a cub scout with a pocket knife. On the walls, art within plywood frames; silent bells hang above hand-carved chairs. Vibrations of sandpaper static and tattoo gun buzz and a woman’s voice from the speakers collide mildly in the air-conditioned space. I feel grounded and welcome here. For a while, the four of us explore our respective channels, quiet and gathered, drawing and carving and writing ourselves with wood and ink. In each of our hands, a new self-portrait births every hour. Inspirations comes to procreate here, in search of willing students, mates, mediums of men of art and blood, music, expression the priority. I am honored to create amongst them.
Yogesh doesn’t have many tattoos himself. “I just haven’t found the right artist,” he says. He showed me his work. Everything custom, except for some Americans who want a photocopy of Ganesha on the shoulder. Most of his style comprises lines and shadows with words and eyes and filigree, accentuated with jazz notes, a simple fusion.
“What can you do with a five-letter word?” I ask.
He wrote my word – trust. – complete with the period, on a blank sheet of paper. “It’s a perfect design,” he says, tilting his head to look at it sideways. “What is your definition?”
That, I think, I’ve got a lifetime to figure out.