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Sunday
Nov232014

Gratitude for a Late Bloomer

I read this morning that the best “cure” for impulse buying is a sincere gratitude for what you already have.  And if there is a week to curb impulse buying AND to be grateful, this coming week is traditionally it!

And, without even trying too hard, I have had several surprises this past week, for which I am really grateful.

  • ·         I remembered that I already owned the Billy Childs (who is 57, by the way) album, Autumn: In Moving Pictures, for which I was again ready to lay out hard-earned cash. 
  • ·         A woman in Walmart saw that I had stupidly left my purse on a counter and turned it in to customer service within five minutes with everything intact.
  • ·         Even though my shoulder has been hurting, I swam today and discovered that those upper back muscles I’ve been trying to strengthen with the wide resistance bands have apparently kicked in: they took SO MUCH pressure off my shoulder I could hardly believe it!
  • ·         And two days ago, my old (and I mean OLD) hibiscus plant that had been sunning on the porch all summer with nary one bloom, did this:

 I cannot tell you how happy I was and how I chortled to that plant like a proud grandparent.  So many of my houseplants have been rescued from curb-side so, as with rescued dogs, you never quite know what you’re getting. But this one bloomed in November—the only blooming thing in sight.

 It made me start to think about late bloomers in general.  We all know that Anna Mary Robertson Moses started painting in her 70s (because embroidery aggravated her arthritis). 

Winter Wallpaper

Norman Maclean published A River Runs Through It when he was 74.

Wallace Stevens, about whose use of metaphor I wrote my doctoral dissertation, didn’t start to write seriously until his 50s.  (He worked in an insurance company most of his life. When his colleagues finally learned that he was a published poet, they exclaimed, in disbelief, ‘Wally??’)

I was especially humbled this week after listening to Stefanie Jacob and Teresa Drews perform so athletically and emotionally Tuesday night. At my lesson Friday (another thing for which I'm thankful), like the good teacher she is, Stefanie acknowledged what she tactfully called my "different learning curve," and indicated that I have made "progress" in emotional expression over the past few years. So today I returned to the laborious process of memorizing some of the Bach Partita I will play at next April's scholarship audition: trying first for finger memory; then, when that fails, sound; and finally the realization that the note that kept tripping me up was, in fact, a D#. Learning a piece is a decidedly unemotional process for me.

Virginia Bell, whose blog appears in the Huffington Post (Post 50), today wrote something entitled  “It’s Never Too Late to Be a Late Bloomer.”  She starts by saying, “Late bloomers are a special breed and often misunderstood. They can appear ridiculous to the rest of the world as they pursue some private dream or else bounce from one profession to another. In the end, they have a longer road and a tougher climb for it requires tremendous faith, courage and an iron will to keep going, especially when there's no tangible success. In a way they are like the stubborn, dogged plants that thrive in unlikely places under harsh conditions; they are the desert flowers, the indomitable trees pushing through city sidewalks and vacant lots [like my abandoned hibiscus].”

She ends her thoughts with this: “ …we all have our own individual timing and like flowers, we bloom at different seasons. What's essential is to honor that timing and trust the process no matter how long it takes or where it leads. Sometimes that process is a direct route on a well-paved road but other times the road is filled with pot holes and detours. Maybe some people need longer to marinate and mature because they aren't just developing their craft or skill; they are also growing into the kind of person who can carry that gift into the world. Perhaps, in the end, it's not so important when we bloom but who we become along the way.”

So we come back to my beautiful, late-blooming hibiscus, whose blossom is even more special because it took so long, though, of course, like all blossoms, it will not last long at all.

I will end with the last few lines of one of my poems, “Sonata,” which is all about late blooming:

 

A woman, playing

alone, composes

herself, knowing

there is always more

to draw upon.

 

Early or late

makes no difference.

 

Space, and time, and

limitation, and failure,

are means.

 

To see that truth

is to see

the gate in the wall,

sequel, reassurance

there is yet more,

like flight,

to pull from impossibility,

from inaudible frequencies,

into the reach

of real.

Wednesday
Nov192014

Ten Thousand Hours

At one recent yoga class, our teacher, Karen, asked us to close our eyes. She then asked us to raise a hand if we practiced yoga at home in addition to our one-hour-a-week class.  She then told us about a one-page (perhaps apocryphal) book called How To Become an Expert in Everything. Supposedly, the one-word text in the one-page book was “practice.”

Anders Ericsson and colleagues at Florida State University, in 1991, proposed a theory that Malcolm Gladwell made famous in his highly successful book The Outliers (2008): namely that with 10,000 hours of “dedicated practice” nearly anyone can become an expert in anything. However, a recent study has called some of these findings into question. A Business Insider article from earlier this year reports that psychological scientist Brooke Macnamara of Princeton University and colleagues

found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains. 

What's really surprising is how much it depends on the domain: 

• In games, practice made for a 26% difference

• In music, it was a 21% difference

• In sports, an 18% difference

• In education, a 4% difference

• In professions, just a 1% difference

The best explanation of the domain dependency is probably found in Frans Johansson's book The Click Moment.

In it, Johansson argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super-stable structures. For example, in tennis, chess, and classical music [emphasis mine], the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. 

Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day of practice over ten years.  Perhaps this explains why some cultures that value proficiency in classical music will push their children to achieve greatness at earlier and earlier ages. However, even though you can find instances of Asian children, for instance, playing “perfect” renditions of quite difficult classical pieces at extremely early ages, their performances are often (but not always) criticized for lacking emotion.

As Daniel J. Levitin notes in his 2006 book, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, “there is more to being a musician than having excellent technique. Both Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz are widely regarded as two of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century but they made mistakes—little technical mistakes—surprisingly often.  [. . .] But as one critic wrote, ‘Rubenstein makes mistakes on some of his records, but I’ll take those interpretations that are filled with passion over the twenty-two-year-old technical wizard who can play the notes but can’t convey the meaning.’”

So I wonder how many hours I have practiced in my nearly seventy years?  I won’t count the many, many years between my two bouts of serious study (i.e. taking lessons). So let’s say for 21 years, ages 7-18, and 59-69, I played an average of 30 minutes a day.  That amounts to a total of less than 4,000 hours.  So it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever reach even the once-thought necessary and sufficient 10,000 hours of practice to become “expert.”

“There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued,” says Macnamara. “For scientists, the important question now is, what else matters?”

Levitin suggests an answer: “What most of us turn to music for is an emotional experience. We aren’t studying the performance for wrong notes, and so long as they don’t jar us out of our reverie, most of us don’t notice them. So much of the research on musical expertise has looked for accomplishment in the wrong place, in the facility of fingers rather than the expressiveness of emotion.”

My piano teacher, Stefanie Jacob, and the head of the piano department at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, Teresa Drews, played a concert last night at the Conservatory: one piano, four-hands.  While watching them play together (yes, they used music), I noticed, not only the physical strength and apparent effortlessness of even the most difficult music (Ravel, Schubert, Rossini and Dvorak), but also the obvious feeling that played across their faces and bodies as they moved through the extremely varied emotions required by the music. 

Levitin again: “If music serves to convey feelings through the interaction of physical gestures and sound, the musician needs his [sic] brain state to match the emotional state he [sic] is trying to express. Although the studies haven’t been performed yet, I’m willing to bet that when B.B. [King] is playing the blues and when he is feeling the blues, the neural signatures are very similar.”

I’ll bet that, too.

In my case, however, I know that concern for playing a piece correctly gets in the way of emotional expression until, at least, I have learned the piece to an extent (i.e. put in enough hours) that will allow me to turn my attention to completely feeling the emotion suggested by the piece. I imagine it’s like an actor memorizing lines. Until they are truly his/hers, it is probably difficult to let flow the emotion supposedly called forth by those lines. And yet I know there are musicians (my teacher included) who come to both technical proficiency and emotion simultaneously: they somehow “hear” the emotion from the beginning and can immediately express it. Maybe this is partly because much of the classical canon is so familiar, especially to someone who has a degree in music and has studied music history. But then how do they do it with music they’ve never heard before, such as much of the modern and contemporary music I have come to admire and even love?

Interesting questions, for now unanswerable, at least as far as I’m concerned.

I do like Levitin’s point that I’ve made before in this blog. He says, “We also know that, on average, successful people have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. This seems counterintuitive. How could successful people have failed more often than everyone else? Failure is unavoidable and sometimes happens randomly. It’s what you do after the failure that is important. Successful people have a stick-to-it-iveness. They don’t quit.”

Speaking of which, two of the seven publishers to whom I sent The Beautiful Unnamed have already rejected it.  But quitting is unthinkable to me.

Stefanie once remarked, perhaps when I described the recital I envisioned for my 70th year, “You’re ambitious aren’t you?” When I said yes, she said, “So am I.”

Apparently, really caring about something marks those experiences as important to the brain. Levitin again: “If I really like a particular piece of music, I’m going to want to practice it more, and because I care about it, I’m going to attach neurochemical tags to each aspect of the memory that label it as important.”

So where does this leave me? Well, I am an ambitious amateur, who cares deeply about the music I’m playing, and who hopes to recreate that emotional experience as smoothly and intensely as possible for my listeners a little more than six months from now.

So mote it be.

thenewoldage.blog.newyorktimes

Thursday
Nov132014

Joyful Disciplines

Why are music and poetry such important parts of my life? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who has studied creativity for many years, in one of his TED talks, gives a description of what this flow of creativity feels like: “’flow’ is the period in the creative process when self-consciousness disappears, time vanishes or becomes full, and there is total absorption in the activity. There is an intense clarity about the moment and a sense of clear movement, and there is little or no concern for failure.”

www.happylifecoffee.com

We have enough of that concern elsewhere in our lives. But when I go to the piano each morning or settle down in the afternoon for some (hopefully) uninterrupted writing time, those minutes of reprieve from self-consciousness, sickness, sadness, and time are why. Under their spell I court failure, seek it out, as a way of overcoming obstacles to getting as close as I can to what feels like my most essential self.

I noticed this link on the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s website the other day. It’s yet another TED talk about what playing a musical instrument does to the brain. Apparently, even listening to music exercises the brain’s analytical as well as synthetical skills: taking, for instance, melody and rhythm apart in a piece of music and instantly connecting them again.

According to this new science, playing a musical instrument has similar benefits to listening to music, but on a much grander scale (pun intended), involving nearly every area of the brain at once. Disciplined, regular practice increases the motor skills as well as the linguistic/math and novel/creative aspects of the brain.  Problem-solving in all areas, cognitive and emotional (academic and social) is enhanced by playing an instrument. Memory function is theoretically increased by helping to creative multiple “retrieval tags” for each memory (Note: I find this “discovery” of particular interest. It’s common knowledge that, when memorizing music, one needs at least three cues:  touch—the finger arrangement; sound—what one learns is “correct” in that piece; visual—what the notes look like on the page, as well as how they fit into the larger score).  No other art apparently results in as many benefits to the brain.

While I’ve often disparaged studies that connect the value of the arts to something else more “practical,” this study is pretty impressive.  It may be that in today’s political climate, we do need to provide “hard, scientific” evidence of the importance of the arts. Even though many conservative politicians deny the existence of such things as climate change because, as they say, they “aren’t scientists,” they would probably be more influenced by scientific studies like this one in favor of the arts than they would by all the existing anecdotal evidence (such as one of my ArtWorks for Milwaukee students—I’ll call him LF--telling me a few years ago that the ONLY reason he went to high school was because of his art and music classes).

As we know, creative thinkers of all kinds have a high tolerance for ambiguity, ambivalence, and a tendency to think in opposites.  John Briggs, in the Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, mentioned in yesterday’s posting, notes, “Creators know that a drip of paint on the canvas, a slip with the chisel on marble, even a mistake in an otherwise well-planned experiment can create a bifurcation point, a moment of truth that amplifies and begins to self-organize the work. This is far different from our usual attitude where mistakes are dismissed as wrong answers, we try to plan accidents out of our enterprises, and failure is an occasion for shame.”  It is much closer to what we usually call “play.”

When I think about the difference between the authentic learning this describes and what usually passes for education in many of today’s schools, is it any wonder that the main draw of schools for kids are their art and music classes—if indeed they haven’t yet been cut?

Nevertheless, Dr. Eric Rasmussen, chair of the Early Childhood Music Department at the Peabody Preparatory of The Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a specialized music curriculum for children aged two months to nine years,  warns, “There is a massive benefit from being musical that we don’t understand, but it’s individual. Music is for music’s sake. The benefit of music education for me is about being musical. It gives you have a better understanding of yourself. The horizons are higher when you are involved in music,” he adds. “Your understanding of art and the world, and how you can think and express yourself, are enhanced.”

Thank you, Dr. Rasmussen.  And yes, I practice FOR music and FOR poetry in some strange sense of the words as much as they provide me with respite from the “normal” world.  I am, in that sense, a disciple, a follower. They are joyful disciplines.

 

 

Monday
Nov102014

Chaos Theory and the Self-Organizing Creativity of Politics, Poetry, and Sickness

I have been sick all weekend. Like everyone, I hate the malaise, the ennui, the sense of everything just stopping for awhile until my body recovers. Especially when I was young, given my family history, every time I got sick I was certain that I would die. I haven’t yet, but the years of second-hand and first-hand smoke from birth to age 30 have resulted in a mild asthma so that even minor viruses seem to aim right for my lungs.

Being sick, however, does give me time and opportunity to connect on an inner level to all others who are experiencing illness and what it does to one’s energy, life-force, creativity.  This morning I thought of a poem I wrote in 2001 when I was sick and watching that year’s summer Olympics. It has never been published, but I still like it, so here it is, for anyone else who happens to be sick at the moment.

 

without desire


sickness has sifted like silt

into the flow

of your summer

 

that old nemesis claiming

a visit or maybe

a home

 

either way he will filch

your delight in food,

beauty, laughter, movement,

 

show you how loosely

your silken senses tie you

to life

 

how finicky your taste

how jarring touch

how heavily

 

sound and smell intrude

as your body slakes even

minimal motion

 

sight remains a draw

but he will render

it distant

 

as the out of doors you are missing

lying with him in your

hot twisted bed

 

tv athletes seem another species

from the viewing box

of pain

 

dependence becomes a bore as others demand

you kick the bastard out,

better get better soon

 

outside life like a greek shade

you watch its smoky richness

without desire

 

gourmet fare no longer tempts,

beauty no longer beckons,

urgent tasks no longer summon

 

and the morning you wake

without his arms flung

over you

 

and feel a flick of craving

to rise, eat, talk,

you shiver, hesitate,

 

wonder why you should again edge out

onto those flimsy surfaces

and when, not

 

if, your departed lover,

who’s left, as usual, a mess

will return to stay

 

It’s interesting to me now how I personified sickness as a lover, so obviously there is some impulse to surrender to it as well, as when I was a child playing hide and seek and, finding  the anxious wait to be discovered unbearable, would step out of hiding and allow myself to be caught.

Last night when I couldn’t sleep, I reached for the closest reading material, which happened to be a book from 1999 (about the same era as the above poem) called Seven Life Lessons of Chaos: Timeless Wisdom from the Science of Change by John Briggs and F. David Peat.  One of the early books linking contemporary physics (here, chaos theory) to phenomena like creativity, I have always found it fascinating.  The growing concept of a self-organizing universe feels so right to me as it links the areas of science, spirituality, and inter-connectedness in life-affirming ways.

The book speaks of the need for uncertainty and chaos in order to access a kind of freedom that can lead to something new. As they say, “Going through the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a period of self-doubt is painful, but often those are the very experiences that bring us to a keen sense of the truth beyond words and a new path in life.” They go on to say that such moments occur to us all, for instance, when we really LOOK at an individual tree instead  of just nodding at it and thinking “tree.”  When we open ourselves to the chaos—the momentary truth of the moment—despite our discomfort, amazing things can happen.

What keeps us from this? They say, “many of us don’t feel creative and persistenly block the action of creativity in much of our lives. We lose it in our obsessions with control and power; in our fear of mistakes; in the constricted grip of our egos; in our fetish with remaining within comfort zones; in our continuous pursuit of repetitive or merely stimulating pleasure; in our restricting our lives to the containers of what other people think; in our adherence to the apparent safety of closed orders; and in our deep-seated belief that the individual exists in an irreducible opposition to others and the world ‘outside’ of the self.”

They go on to say that “creativity often involves entering chaos in order to rediscover something old or retrieve the freshness of the everyday. A sense of newness seems an inevitable characteristic of creativity, because when we enter the vital turbulence of life, we realize that, at bottom, everything is always new. Often we have simply failed to notice this fact. When we’re being creative, we take notice.”

There is more I could quote, but I urge you, if interested, to take a look at the book.  These are the seven lessons which they discuss in terms of current scientific as well as creative and political theories: 

  1. Being Creative
  2. Using Butterfly Power
  3. Going with the Flow
  4. Exploring What’s Between
  5. Seeing the Art of the World
  6. Living within Time
  7. Rejoining the Whole

Whenever I feel a kind of despair or self-doubt, as after the recent elections, it is helpful to remember that things can and will yet evolve through “subtle influence.”  Through such influence, the Berlin wall fell 25 years ago, Jim Crow laws unraveled through Rosa Park’s work, and my own anxiety about the future can open up to the realization that we simply do not know what will come to pass: that surrendering to the felt risk of chaos can indeed give way to creative solutions that we could never have dreamed of ourselves.  

I will close with this: “So although cynical realists argue that human nature can never change from the greedy, self-centered, hierarchical, power-driven consciousness that has dominated history, chaos theory opens the door on such change. It suggests that consciousness is not confined to what is just taking place privately within our individual heads. Consciousness is an open system like the weather. It is shaped by language, society, and all our daily interactions. Each one of us is an aspect of the collective consciousness of the world, and the contents of that consciousness are constantly being altered by the forces of chaos that each of us expresses. The strategies of human nature are not absolutely fixed. Through chaos, one individual or a small group of individuals can deeply and subtly influence the entire world.”

And so I take a deep breath to clear my lungs and my mind of the status quo and allow, for the time being, the “mess”—the chaos—that unexpected illness always provides to lead to something new.  I think, in other vocabularies, this is sometimes termed “grace.”

Friday
Nov072014

Putting Together a Book of Poetry=Creating the Guest List for a Perfect Dinner Party

I’ve realized that I’ve written more about preparing for my recital next spring than I have about manifesting the book I’ve spoken of, other than to say that I hope to have my first long collection of poetry available by the time of the recital.

As some of you know and others may imagine, putting together a book of poems is an art all its own. A collection of poems is not just a bunch of poems thrown together. There are many websites out there that will, for a fee, guide you through the process. But here’s what I’ve learned.  For me, putting together a book of poetry is similar to making a collage in that putting diverse objects and/or visuals next to each other makes them react in new and unpredictable ways. They begin to speak to each other, and, as any good conversation can do, it deepens and makes more complex the individual points of view.

Over the decades, I have “put together” many a manuscript that was never published, in any form.  Often, while waiting for the inevitable rejections, I noticed “new” things and changed the order, or added a new poem, which changed everything.  It was an informative practice that, somewhat like a writer’s group, allows you to see your own work from a new perspective.

 One thing I have learned, which the luxury of a long writing career allows for, is to include only your best poems.  This is often hard to discover without some outside feedback. You want poems that not only speak to each other but that, individually, have something worth hearing. www.demeterclarc.comI suppose it’s sort of like inviting just the right people to a dinner party so that the conversation will never lag. Unfortunately, I have never been the kind of person to hold many dinner parties (partly because I am not a fan of cooking), but I imagine it’s something like that.

 I did take my initial manuscript to my writing group, which not only gave me encouragement, but made suggestions about individual poems that somehow did not quite “fit in” with the rest.  At a dinner party, this may sound elitist or exclusive. After all, it’s that one unusual person who can sometimes be most interesting. But even then, the party is likely to become focused only on that ONE person who stands out rather than on an equal exchange of ideas.  

 In my case, the poems that “stood out” were poems that I had either written for a specific anthology or group of people with a specialized vocabulary, or were poems that had a very different “voice” from the others. By that, I refer to a narrative poem in the “voice” of one of the characters; whereas the rest of the poems I had chosen were loosely in “my” voice.  And, familiar as I was with them all, my readers caught the disjunction and just raised a question about it.

 And so I have done a little revising, a little reordering, and have made some changes to those poems that make them “fit in” just a little better. I did not exclude them; I just softened their edges a bit. You may have noticed that sometimes in the Acknowledgements section of a book of poems, there will be a statement like this: “Some of these poems have appeared previously in a slightly different form in such-and-such magazines.”  Well, to me that phrase “in a slightly different form” either means that the poems have been revised at some point since then and/or that they have been altered slightly to “fit in” with the rest of the poems in that volume.

The other thing I have done in the past week, again with the encouragement of my writers’ group, is to send the manuscript to more than the two places I had previously sent it. This led me to Google the phrase “presses that publish book-length poetry manuscripts without fees.”   It is amazing to me that you can Google such things and come up with answers. But you can!  What I found was a manageable list of small presses (some now defunct) with short descriptions of the kind of thing they are looking for. Within just a couple of hours, I was able to submit my manuscript to six of them.

How different from years ago when the “research” involved going to a bookstore and looking at the publishers that published the poetry on the shelf, and the magazines that published it.  There weren’t many indie publishers at that time that weren’t just publishing their own circle of poets (some are still this way). Contests were just starting, but each required not only an entrance fee (they still do), but you had to print out each copy and take it to the post office and pay some hefty money for postage AND return postage if you didn’t want to have to type it out all over again.

How easy it is now just to submit it electronically!

A big difference, however, is the sheer number of poets out there looking for an indie publisher.  Forget about the big publishing houses;  they rarely publish unknowns anymore. And contests by small presses sometimes attract hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that there is a lot of discussion going on out there about how people “should” and “are” getting published.  Self-publishing is not the pariah it was once considered to be. On-line publishing is becoming common, and often results in more readers than print publishing. Publishing print books is still an expensive process, however it’s done, and one must query potential publishers about their expectations and requirements. Sometimes it’s completely up the author to sell his/her books, and a certain number (100-200) are expected.  At this point, it’s hard to find that line between self-publishing and publishing a book to which someone else is lending their (often equally unknown) name in order to make it appear “legitimate.”

Wow. What we put ourselves through.

I believe I have said that I am fine with publishing this book myself. It takes a lot of time and money to do that,  however, and I’m not sure that’s how I want to spend mine. The up side of self-publishing is that you can make the book anything you like: you have complete “say” over aesthetics, content, everything.  I have published three chapbooks with three different editors. One was marvelous, one was so-so, and one was simply horrible in that she did not honor my wishes at all, and did not even discuss them with me, let alone compromise. So you never know what you are getting. But a good editor, like a good writers' group, is priceless.

So that’s where I am at present. My book, called The Beautiful Unnamed (after one of the poems in it), is 88 pages long.  It includes 34 poems, nine of which have appeared in one of my three chapbooks.  Fifteen have appeared in poetry journals, and eleven have never been published. Even now, it is exciting to hear them chatter and mutter among themselves.  They are divided into five groups (sort of like dividing a class into sub-groups to discuss a particular topic). Each group is titled by one of the poems in that group: “The Beautiful Unnamed,” “Family Snapshot,” “Sonata,” “The Limits of Calculus,” “Climate Change,” and “Theme and Variations.”  Those of you who have read this blog from the beginning will note the “cross-over” between music and poetry in some of those titles.

So what is the book “about”? One poet, whose name I cannot recall (perhaps one of you can enlighten me) was asked to explain one of the poems he had just read publicly; he would not answer, but simply read the poem again. To me that’s a kind of obnoxious response, but it gets at something important.  The poem, though I believe it should be intelligible to almost anyone, reverberates in each particular ear.  It needs an audience, as I’ve said before, to “appreciate it”—to increase its meaning  through connection with something/someone else. 

So whether it’s an audience of one, one hundred, or simply the poems bouncing off each other between the (hopefully real) pages of a book,  only they can, for the moment, answer the question of meaning. We all make it, all the time.  

So that’s an update on where this book is at present. I hope that you will all eventually enjoy its conversation; you are on the guest list!