A glyph for 2015

Over the last couple of years, my way of processing life and pondering the world around me has increasingly been mediated through symbols. Writing systems, pictograms, allegories and icons are the currency of my imagination. With symbols I can do more than words allow. I have a developed a personal pictography, a kind of shorthand, drawing from many sources and referenced to particular meanings.

I’m well past making new year’s resolutions but I’ve always taken time to focus on taking stock of the passing year and feeling out the themes of the coming year round this time. In prayer and contemplation for 2015, it seemed three things and a fourth were being emphasised.

Having worked out glyphs for these emphases, I noticed that each of them had a common element – a cross – enabling me to combine them into a single form.

So here is the glyph I mark upon the doorposts of 2015.

2015

2015

It’s component parts are thus:

Finishing

Finishing

Finishing

This is the symbol for Saturn. In esoteric systems, Saturn has a very complex variety of correspondences. But, to keep it simple Saturn was the Greek god of agriculture and the symbol contains two elements: a cross (or sword) and a sickle. It can be taken to represent the harvest: things must die and come to an end but in that moment seeds are gathered for sowing in the next cycle.

Of course, to be saturnine is to be gloomy, but, to borrow from the Christian imagery of the cross, the words of the Son of God are appropriate.

I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.” (John 12:24 HCSB)

I’ve noted that the last few years have been characterised by a lack of finishing. I enter 2015 with so many projects begun and not completed. An unfulfilled intention, a work half done, can become rotten. I need to put the sickle in and finish many things so that new life can come. 2015 is to be a year of finishing.

Truth

Truth

Truth

Encapsulated here in one of the many alchemical symbols for gold is something I need to bring back to the centre. Truth, like gold can be tested by fire, bears no combination with other elements and stays unchanged.

I’m a people pleaser. This means I all too easily try to give others the answer I think they want to hear. That’s not always realistic. I’ve a creeping habit of white lies: “Of course, it’s no problem.” “I’ll be there at six.” “It will be fine.” “I’ll be thinking of you.”

These are not loving, respectful interjections unless they are true. Even if it arises from the best will in the world, I need to curb my optimism at times and let my ‘yes’ actually mean ‘yes’.

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” (Leo Tolstoy)

Praxis

Praxis

Praxis

This is a symbol I’ve invented to use for the concept of praxis – an antidote to inwardness. It depicts a sword, internally rooted but driving outwards to act externally. For me, Praxis doesn’t oppose contemplation but means something like a ‘contemplation by doing’ and it’s closely allied to the philosopher’s ‘techne’ – practical craft.

I owe this new emphasis to the lessons I’ve been studying in alchemy over recent months. The alchemist performs processes – burning, boiling, distilling – all the while observing diligently the transformation of substances without missing the correspondences with his own soul-work.

I’ve written before in this blog on the experimental approach to life, and this seems to be back in focus for this year.

It’s surprising I never really took to science at school. I don’t think I ever made the connection between what we did in the classroom and the fact that my den in the garage hosted a fossil collection and pendulums that hung from the ceiling to study gravity and waves. I had exercise books full of notes and measurements of such things as the landing positions of sticks thrown at random. I tried to replicate the experiments of Mendel in my flower bed. I was just a little Issac Newton, but schooling cast me as an ‘arts person’.

I don’t think our education system encourages the formation of a renaissance mind, and more is the pity.

In 2015 the world and my self will be my laboratory. I want to do real stuff in the real world and watch it closely and learn all I can from it instead of from books.

And the fourth thing

Although not depicted, this underpins all of them. It’s ‘momentum‘.

I’m poor at keeping momentum. If things are going well, I cruise or put my attention elsewhere, so they grind to a halt. This goes for creative projects, relationships, work and home life. Things are not finished. Wishful thinking swallows up reality. Praxis collapses back into theoria.

It’s easier in the long run to keep the wheels turning with tactical doses of effort than to be repeatedly frustrated by inertia.

Mandala Meditations

Summers tend to be inherently disordered. Because it’s Summer, because everyone else is on holiday, because there is a wedding to go to virtually every weekend, because it’s too hot to cook and a salad or sandwich will do, because being outdoors is possible and therefore compulsory, because the nights are too bright and warm to sleep normal hours, many habits and routines fall by the wayside and need to be resumed in the Autumn.

As I’ve begun to pick up threads of habit and find ‘normal’ life again in the last week, I’ve taken up mandalas. Jung used them with his patients not only diagnostically but therapeutically. Having noticed their appearance in many cultures and creeds, he went on to find mandalas a useful tool for centering and ordering the personality internally and situating it cosmically:

The severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder and confusion of the psychic state—namely, through the construction of a central point to which everything is related, or by a concentric arrangement of the disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements.

This is evidently an attempt at self healing on the part of nature, which does not spring from a conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse.

To begin with, I’ve just been ‘journaling’ by drawing one each day, usually using forms related to how I’m feeling or what I’m preoccupied about. Well, making pretty patterns and colouring them in is a great way to lose yourself for an hour and is obviously therapeutic. Each of these has become a meditation and a prayer that seems to have gathered and offered, directed and consolidated the day. I think this may be a new creative practice for the next season.

So here are the mandalas from the last four days:

05/09/14 – Potential

08/09/14 - Change

06/09/14 – Change

07/09/14 - Voyage

07/09/14 – Voyage

08/09/14 - Resurrection

08/09/14 – Resurrection

If you want more, here’s a pinboard full of them from my Pinterest.

A good starting point for further exploration is Peter Patric Barreda’s MandalaZone website.

A Doodle a Day Part IX

Sometimes when my journaling habit collapses, squeezed out by the busyness that I perceive in my life (whether it’s really there or not), I still find time to doodle. I have very basic app on my phone that makes it easier.

I like to ask people the question: if you could swap your primary creative talent for another, would you? And what would it be? Most people say, ‘no, I wouldn’t.’ But I’ll admit I have artist’s envy for people who can draw as wonderfully as a couple of people I know. When you’ve looked at these phone scribbles, go and check out the work of a couple of pros:

Daniel Weatheritt – A very inspiring illustrator I’ve had the pleasure of working with recently.

Philippa Cappelman – A gifted draughtswoman friend who has recently launched out.

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

Swift

Swift

I'm still fairly obsessed with trying to draw swifts

I’m still fairly obsessed with trying to draw swifts

Tree

Tree

Dog

Dog

Mooning Hare

Mooning Hare

Crustacean - I love these creatures and wish I could draw them

Crustacean – I love these creatures and wish I could draw them

The Good Land

The Good Land

See some of my previous doodle posts.

Swifts for the tacit longings of our adult years

As we approach middle age, is it normal for birds to become more fascinating to us? We start feeding them, watching them, doodling them. Do they represent our longing to shed the earthbound web we’ve woven for ourselves and to be as light as air? Maybe it’s just me.

Once again my scratchpad (the notebook I keep strictly for rough work/business notes, lists of action items and phone calls) has been invaded by the doodling dreamer.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

Notebook Wars

A good writing implement can bring out the best in us.

I’m mainly a pencil person for taking notes, doodling and writing. For journaling, inking in or neater work, I adore the triplus® fineliner by STAEDTLER. But lately, a couple of fountain pens have been added to the arsenal. A good one, well primed, is a wonderful writer. A bad one can fill a page very quickly with bizarre textures and symbols.

The pages of my scratch book have recorded a strange battle over the last week or so:

 

I like to believe that even the way we scribble when trying to get a blasted pen to work can be pressed into the service of narrative.

 

 

 

A Doodle a Day: Part VIII (going mobile)

I have lost my blogging rhythm over the summer. I have been happily busy – so busy that “down time = mostly sleeping”. However, I have kept doodling, thanks to an app on my phone. I have found this a simple way to relax. So, once again, in the absence of any substantial words, here are some pictures:

Click here to see the entire Doodle a Day series.

Creativity and the Edge Effect or “Yo-Yo Ma and Monkeys”

Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.

However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:

“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey (Via Wikipedia)

This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.

Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.

Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.

Back to the Kennedy centre …

Ma brings on a series of artistes to illustrate the edge effect. What does it look like, for instance, when Lil’ Buck performs his own street-forged dance moves to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens?

He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.

“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”

That fascinates me!

I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.

I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?

Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).

Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?

  • Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
  • Go on an artist date (indulge in thrill-seeking).
  • Study a parallel discipline (photographers, pick up a paint brush).
  • Throw away the dummy (burn those notebooks, there are plenty of fresh ideas where those ones came from).
  • Move the furniture around (sit next to someone different at the next meeting).
  • Get into your collaboration zone (thanks to one of my favourite collaborators, noahsapprentice, for this suggestion)

Whatever it takes …

How might you create your own edge effect?

I’m just kidding about the mime, by the way.

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