Wherein lies the power of writing? Of story? When does a story become a meaningful experience? Prose become poetry? Writing become art?
Is good writing simply the ability to string words together in a logical way that always makes sense? Or is it something less horizontal and linear? Something deep and dense, high and elevating? Complex and personal? The answer to these questions has less to do with your left-brained cognitive abilities — skills typically studied on IQ tests — than you might imagine. It’s more about your right brain’s preference for images and emotions.
Plato said art is mimetic by nature — an imitation of life — whereas ideas are the ultimate reality. For him, philosophy was superior to poetry. But his student, Aristotle, preferred poetry for the very reason that it mimics nature. He believed life is the ultimate reality, and that poetry reflects it.
Good writing, whether prose or poetry, resonates in your psyche because it is grounded in life. You might admire a writer’s intellectual cleverness with ideas and words, you might even try to imitate it. But a story or piece of writing will not become meaningful and memorable unless it stirs up images, memories, moods, and emotions in the same way dreams and myths do: by mirroring the archetypal truths of your soul in ways that move you. Interior experiences like this are embodied expressions of your nature in its essence, human nature, both physical and archetypal.
Meme-Noir (a play on the word ‘memoir’), is a remarkable new book by Toronto-based author, poet, artist, and teacher Steven McCabe that illustrates this connection perfectly. All of McCabe’s work — now including eight books, a blog called Poemimage, paintings, poems, drawings, videos, murals, and multi-media works — tell stories with a powerful psychological impact.
Imagine you are standing alone under a black-domed sky splashed with a panoply of starry constellations. Each has its own myths, cluster of personal associations, and visual and emotional nuances. This is how McCabe describes his inspiration for Meme-Noir:
“I emailed myself stories and anecdotes
Over an eight year period.
During discussions with the publisher (then),
For now the company has been sold,
I experienced a moment of revelation.
Luciano Iacobelli looked over my first ten pages
‘No, no, no, no, no.’
‘No theme, no thesis,
Just give me the puzzle pieces.’
He gestured with his hands and said,
I was left to interpret ‘constellations’ as I wished.
I came up with the idea of vignettes comprising constellations.
Each vignette in a constellation
Has one key word in common.
Each series of vignettes
Covers various time periods,
Within a constellation.
So, it’s a non-linear timeline.”
This excerpt is from his beautifully illustrated post about Meme-Noir on his blog. Following is a sampling of three vignettes from the book. Each is a unique star in a particular constellation of his psyche centered around the key word “float.” As you read, notice the images and emotions the words elicit from you.
“Around dusk I saw a ball of light float slowly past. It was bigger than a basketball but soft as a dandelion puff. Later I saw another one outside the window, in the pitch-black countryside. The couple visiting from Toronto said, “We saw them all the way here.” I stayed overnight at their place when they were students. In the morning I did a shoulder stand and above me a tiny star exploded as soon as it appeared. Light shot everywhere.” p.12
“My brother asked older ladies in the department store for directions – while forming a saliva bubble on his tongue – and floating it out his mouth. “Are you alright, son?” When George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, ran for President in the Democratic Primaries he gave a press conference downtown. We leaned against the wall. Wallace walked towards the exit with men on either side. My brother stomped one leg like a pony. Wallace froze, with a startled expression. My brother leaned forward, at the hips, and floated a bubble into the air. Wallace stared for two seconds and continued walking. My brothers and I laughed, all the way home, down Canal Avenue.” p.13
“I substitute their names when I read art history books aloud as they paint: Myra developed Cubism, with George Braque, in the early 20 th Century – Omar painted a melting pocket watch, defining Surrealism – Janine introduced Pointillism, dabbing thousands of dots. I personalize the text, so it floats – without dragging – after their long week of data coming at them like a flash flood.” p. 13
This is not just art for public consumption. It’s an example of how a man is alchemically transforming the raw elements of his life into a work of art. What floated through your mind as you read?
Meme-Noir is a fresh, original, page-turning tour de force of a psychological memoir. McCabe as storyteller is an enormously likable lover of life who survives daunting challenges with forthrightness, intelligence, compassion and wit, sustained by his ability to lose and then find himself again in art.
The style is unlike anything you’ve read before. Described as a “journey of addictive linguistic charm” (from a blurb by Pierre L’Abbe), it twists and turns through the subterranean rabbit warren of McCabe’s artistic sensibility to trace the transformational odyssey of a wounded soul trying to make its way home.
I highly recommend Meme-Noir. You can order it here, and here. Never More Together, McCabe’s visual, wordless poem about the harsh treatment of truth in a society ruled by fear, can be found here. To watch the poet speak about Never More Together, check out this Youtube video.
Image credits: All images created by Steven McCabe. Reproduced here with permission.
“Each person is born with an unencumbered spot, free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry, an umbilical spot of grace where we were each touched by God. It is this spot of grace that issues peace. Psychologists call this spot the Psyche, Theologists call it the Soul, Jung calls it The Seat of the Unconscious, Hindu masters call it the Atman, Buddhists call it the Dharma, Rilke called it Inwardness, Sufis call it Qualb, and Jesus calls it The center of Our Love.
To know this spot of inwardness is to know who we are, not by surface markers of identity, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it. This is a hard lifelong task, for the nature of becoming is a constant filming over of where we begin while the nature of being is a constant erosion of what is not essential. We each live in the midst of this ongoing tension, growing tarnished or covered over only to be worn back to that incorruptible spot of grace at our core.” Mark Nepo
Mark Nepo rightly notes that we each live in the midst of an ongoing tension. Part of it is caused by the natural stressors of living in a fast-paced, instant-gratification world, and part is our natural inner compulsion to grow and better ourselves. The reality is, we can’t grow without conflict or suffering. The different energies of the north and south poles need to interact to create our earth’s magnetic field. You have to contend with the different specialties of your brain’s two hemispheres as well as the realities of your inner and outer lives to resolve everyday problems.
Tension motivates change. If we can tolerate the tension of our conflicts long enough without acting rashly, our unconscious can find solutions that will further our growth. But if we ignore our tension too long without addressing it, it can create burnout and physical symptoms.
How do we address our tension? How do we find that magical, unencumbered spot of grace that issues peace? Whether we’re aware of it or not, this is a central question around which our lives revolve, but many of us are so distracted by our outer lives that we don’t stop long enough to hear the question, let alone try to answer it. To further complicate things, the answers vary from culture to culture and individual to individual. But four principles remain constant.
1. Create some personal alone time to find your center. This involves more than saying an occasional affirmation or prayer, listening to a weekly sermon, or hearing a few motivational speeches. You’ll need to be willing to delay some pursuits which your ego finds instantly gratifying in favor of ones that will bring future rewards which may be a long time coming.
2. Try different practices until you find what brings you to a place of love, joy, and peace. Pay close attention to your inner life, not only while you’re practicing, but throughout the rest of the day and coming weeks. Notice how your practice affects your emotions, moods, self-esteem, and relationships. Commit to the one or ones that make you come alive and bring you close to Spirit. Here are some I’ve tried: writing, poetry, meditation, prayer, dreamwork, yoga, playing and listening to music, being with animals and nature, hiking, and reading. Of these, writing, dreamwork, and meditation have been the most helpful and enduring.
3. Persevere. Some practices take a longer trial period than others before you get into the groove and begin to notice beneficial effects that motivate you to continue. For example, I’ve always loved to write — letters, poetry, diaries, journals, stories, plays, etc. — but when I began to write my dissertation at the age of 39, it was far more difficult than fun. Since it was my dissertation, I forced myself to persevere. Because I had a part-time job and two children, I wrote for a few hours every night after they went to bed. Of course, this meant I had to let other responsibilities slide and my husband had to help more with the kids and household duties. At first, these changes were hard for all of us. But day by day my resistance lowered, my writing brought more pleasure, and my family grew accustomed to our new routines. By the time I finished several months later, I realized that this had been the happiest time of my adult life! Hard as it was, the moment I sat down at my typewriter, time disappeared and all my concerns dissolved until I got up again. It was pure magic.
4. Practice regularly. Daily is ideal. Set aside a time when you can be alone and concentrate for at least 20 or 30 minutes. But there’s no need to beat yourself up if you miss a few of these appointments with your soul. For example, when I first committed myself to dreamwork, I recorded and worked on dreams most mornings and totaled over 300 every year. Last weekend I finished summarizing my dreams from 2019 and my total was 119. Weeks passed when I didn’t remember and record a dream. But I’ve done this for so long that I know when I need to get serious about it again. And when I do, it always brings me back to peace and love.
What practices make your true Self come alive? If you haven’t found your center yet, may 2020 be your year of returning to that umbilical spot of grace where you were touched by God.
Image credits: Serpentine Fire, Google Free Images, unknown. Heart Mandala, Google Free Images, Daniel B. Holeman.
Happy New Year to my dear reader friends. Thank you for following Matrignosis. May the new year bring you increasing health, prosperity, joy, and wisdom. Today a friend sent me this wonderful article by Mary Pipher. I share her sentiments and could not have said it better. Enjoy.
We carry accumulation of years in our bodies, and on our faces, but generally our real selves, the children inside, are innocent and shy as magnolias. –Maya Angelou
This article originally appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review, on January 12th, 2019.
When I told my friends I was writing a book on older women like us, they immediately protested, “I am not old.” What they meant was that they didn’t act or feel like the cultural stereotypes of women their age. Old meant bossy, useless, unhappy and in the way. Our country’s ideas about old women are so toxic that almost no one, no matter her age, will admit she is old.
In America, ageism is a bigger problem for women than aging. Our bodies and our sexuality are devalued, we are denigrated by mother-in-law jokes, and we’re rendered invisible in the media. Yet, most of the women I know describe themselves as being in a vibrant and happy life stage. We are resilient and know how to thrive in the margins. Our happiness comes from self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and empathy for others.
Most of us don’t miss the male gaze. It came with catcalls, harassment and unwanted attention. Instead, we feel free from the tyranny of worrying about our looks. For the first time since we were 10, we can feel relaxed about our appearance. We can wear yoga tights instead of nylons and bluejeans instead of business suits.
Yet, in this developmental stage, we are confronted by great challenges. We are unlikely to escape great sorrow for long. We all suffer, but not all of us grow. Those of us who grow do so by developing our moral imaginations and expanding our carrying capacities for pain and bliss. In fact, this pendulum between joy and despair is what makes old age catalytic for spiritual and emotional growth.
By our 70s, we’ve had decades to develop resilience. Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice. We don’t need to look at our horoscopes to know how our day will go. We know how to create a good day.
We have learned to look every day for humor, love and beauty. We’ve acquired an aptitude for appreciating life. Gratitude is not a virtue but a survival skill, and our capacity for it grows with our suffering. That is why it is the least privileged, not the most, who excel in appreciating the smallest of offerings.
Many women flourish as we learn how to make everything workable. Yes, everything. As we walk out of a friend’s funeral, we can smell wood smoke in the air and taste snowflakes on our tongues.
Our happiness is built by attitude and intention. Attitude is not everything, but it’s almost everything. I visited the jazz great Jane Jarvis when she was old, crippled and living in a tiny apartment with a window facing a brick wall. I asked if she was happy and she replied, “I have everything I need to be happy right between my ears.”
We may not have control, but we have choices. With intention and focused attention, we can always find a forward path. We discover what we are looking for. If we look for evidence of love in the universe, we will find it. If we seek beauty, it will spill into our lives any moment we wish. If we search for events to appreciate, we discover them to be abundant.
There is an amazing calculus in old age. As much is taken away, we find more to love and appreciate. We experience bliss on a regular basis. As one friend said: “When I was young I needed sexual ecstasy or a hike to the top of a mountain to experience bliss. Now I can feel it when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.”
Older women have learned the importance of reasonable expectations. We know that all our desires will not be fulfilled, that the world isn’t organized around pleasing us and that others, especially our children, are not waiting for our opinions and judgments. We know that the joys and sorrows of life are as mixed together as salt and water in the sea. We don’t expect perfection or even relief from suffering. A good book, a piece of homemade pie or a call from a friend can make us happy. As my aunt Grace, who lived in the Ozarks, put it, “I get what I want, but I know what to want.”
We can be kinder to ourselves as well as more honest and authentic. Our people-pleasing selves soften their voices and our true selves speak more loudly and more often. We don’t need to pretend to ourselves and others that we don’t have needs. We can say no to anything we don’t want to do. We can listen to our hearts and act in our own best interest. We are less angst-filled and more content, less driven and more able to live in the moment with all its lovely possibilities.
Many of us have a shelterbelt of good friends and long-term partners. There is a sweetness to 50-year-old friendships and marriages that can’t be described in language. We know each other’s vulnerabilities, flaws and gifts; we’ve had our battles royal and yet are grateful to be together. A word or a look can signal so much meaning. Lucky women are connected to a rich web of women friends. Those friends can be our emotional health insurance policies.
The only constant in our lives is change. But if we are growing in wisdom and empathy, we can take the long view. We’ve lived through seven decades of our country’s history, from Truman to Trump. I knew my great-grandmother, and if I live long enough, will meet my great-grandchildren. I will have known seven generations of family. I see where I belong in a long line of Scotch-Irish ancestors. I am alive today only because thousands of generations of resilient homo sapiens managed to procreate and raise their children. I come from, we all come from, resilient stock, or we wouldn’t be here.
By the time we are 70, we have all had more tragedy and more bliss in our lives than we could have foreseen. If we are wise, we realize that we are but one drop in the great river we call life and that it has been a miracle and a privilege to be alive.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.