Letter from the Editor: Compassion Conditioning Through Art
A student once questioned the point of a compassion anthology: why draw, paint, write about compassion when you could go out and employ it directly? I spent a while pondering this. What I have discovered is that compassion is most often a predicament—something we begrudgingly choose (or choose not) to do. When we give eagerly, it’s during the holidays, because there is a bandwagon effect—everyone else is giving as well— and it makes us feel good.
I’ve had many compassion predicaments in my life, and I’m no exception. There was the elderly lady sitting on a bench outside the Stop & Shop with bags full of food who wanted a ride home; the ride she had arranged beforehand had left her stranded. I was taken aback by this proposition and perceived her as brazen, but being the softy that I am, I gave in. We loaded her groceries into the back of my Toyota Rav4, and I dropped her off at her apartment building down the road. She was especially appreciative, and although I initially felt annoyed and inconvenienced, I experienced a sudden rush of joy as I pulled away.
And then there was the woman at dusk in the Salem Commons kneeling in the dirt. I couldn’t see her clearly and mistook her for a fire hydrant until she cried out, “Can you help me? Please help.”
The woman—Mary was her name—was having a stroke; “The right side of my body is dead,” she told me when I approached her. She was seemingly petite and frail, but too heavy to carry, so I reassured her I would be her dead side and, half-holding her, continued to push her right foot forward with my left so that I could get her home. Managing her and my dog, who was exceedingly uneasy about the situation, took about a half hour: I had to alternate moving and propping Mary, then untying and moving my dog, until I found someone who could help.
As I was moving Mary, she told me about the death of her husband and of her only living relative—a nephew in Brighton— and how she was terrified of hospitals. We talked about bingo and the religious scandals in the Church. A portal opened into the life of another, and it was meaningful. My nights were typically spent alone back then, with my dog, in my apartment; helping Mary made me feel a part of the continuum of humanity.
What provoked me to act? Perhaps on some level I saw myself in the dirt, which triggered the Golden Rule—do to others as you would have them do to you—a tenet put in place by the Catholic Church. But I think it was guilt that motivated me more than anything: if I didn’t help these women then how much of a jerk was I?
Our lives are simply not structured for compassion. They’re structured for sustaining the comforts we have as well as any inclination toward financial and social advancement; it’s the American way. Especially now, in a troubled economy, we have an alibi. This alibi, however, falls short in the presence of the restless human spirit seeking community and good will. We do a fantastic job of distracting ourselves from this restlessness, but it’s always lurking, waiting for us to turn off the screen.
The root of compassion originates in the meaninglessness of our lives; it begins with existential dissatisfaction, wanting something more, a spiritual need to connect with others. Compassionate works of art help us realize that need. Just as Martin Luther King Jr. conditioned his civil rights activists in non-violence, so too must we become conditioned in compassion. For a lot of us, religion accomplishes this task but art can inspire it as well, through stories, songs, and images.
On my first day back to school this past fall semester, I carried around in my mind a painting titled “Sentience” by Dawn Fisher (see Home and Art pages in The Compassion Project: An Anthology). It came up during my morning meditation and I recalled it several times that day as I went to teach my composition classes with an undercurrent of apprehension. Would this semester stress me out? Does what I do really matter? Am I making enough money? The image settled me because I recognized that its presence had meaning: sentience, or awareness, is the heart of my job—I dispel ignorance and inform; I bring students to a greater awareness of their own sensibilities and the ways of the world around them. I do important work. The image had dismissed any apprehension and replaced it with justification, with confidence. It inspired me.
Artists use images to express ideas and emotions, poets and writers, to heighten the meanings of texts, psychics, to communicate with the dead, religions and secular organizations to portray collective beliefs, and advertisers to persuade us to buy. What if we could tap into the subliminal power of images to inspire us to be compassionate? Would we then eagerly choose compassion in a compassion predicament?
In his New York Times article “Compassion Made Easy," David DeSteno, a social psychologist, affirms “that the compassion we feel for others is not solely a function of what befalls them: if our minds draw an association between a victim and ourselves—even a relatively trivial one—the compassion we feel for his or her suffering is amplified greatly.”
This “association” De Steno speaks of is empathy; this is what causes us to act. And the objective of most art is to connect people through a common thread of humanity—empathy.
Yet, in order for a work of art, be it a poem, a story, a song, or a play to be effective, it must be timely. It must coincide with a compassion predicament. My hope is that this first edition of The Compassion Project: An Anthology will spark empathy in its readers and viewers enough to welcome these compassion predicaments and honor them with compassionate actions, and that these actions will, as DeSteno says paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, “radiate outward and increase harmony for all.”
The works included here depict a wide range of compassionate acts from simple, random acts of kindness as in Enver Rahmanov’s “A Stranger on a Subway,” to the founding of compassionate organizations that combat global suffering, as outlined in Marina Cantacuzino’s “The Forgiveness Project” and Tam Martin Fowles “A Journey to Compassion.”
Several of our contributors utilize art in a compassionate way as part of their life’s work: Marina Cantacuzino of The Forgiveness Project uses storytelling to explore reconciliation between victims and their perpetrators; Tam Martin Fowles uses cathartic art as a means to accept and overcome adversity; our associate editor Jennifer Jean teaches poetry to sex trafficking survivors, and poet Doug Holder has led poetry groups at McLean Hospital for the past 30 years.
Finally, I hope this anthology will help me with my latest compassion predicament—one that involves the children in Sierra Leone who lost their parents and guardians to the Ebola virus. My predicament is not if I should act, but how I should act to help these kids, because all of my previous attempts have failed. The organization that supports these children is called ChildHelp Sierra Leone and the director, Kaprie Thoronka, is a selfless man who has seen his share of hardship. We’ve been communicating weekly about the Ebola crisis and the emails and pictures he sends me are heart-wrenching.
On the children’s behalf, I have decided to organize a campaign called Images of Compassion featuring poetry and art. Chosen work will be displayed here, in the anthology, and in an exhibit (I’m still ironing out the details as to where and when). We will charge an entry fee for submitters, and this will go directly to ChildHelp Sierra Leone, as will any proceeds from a silent auction (if we have one).
If you wish to make a donation now to ChildHelp Sierra Leone, you can visit their 1% Club crowdfunding sitehttps://onepercentclub.com/en/?#!/projects/post-ebola-child-support. If you are interested in submitting to Images of Compassion, we’ll have the submission guidelines up in January, so keep checking our Facebook page and website.
I thank you for visiting our site and wish you peace, compassion, and joy in 2015.
Laurette Folk, editor of The Compassion Project: An Anthology
Friday, December 26, 2014
Saturday, November 29, 2014
Draw Antonio, draw, and do not waste time.
This is what Michelangelo wrote to his assistant before he died.
Walking amongst the Bowdoin Pines, I found the remnant of a goose beak; a coyote must have finished it off. And then a few yards beyond, an old growth pine, prodigious and solemn. How many secrets did it have? Had its young needles brushed the hem of Hawthorne's coat as he walked these woods as a young man? Here's a sad thing: some ten essay ideas (or more) huddle about me like moths to a porch light and I don't have the wherewithal to write them. There are meals to cook, diapers to change, dishes and clothes to wash. The latest came fluttering while walking amongst the Bowdoin Pines: Survivor vs. Victim. What are the characteristics of a survivor? What are the characteristics of a victim? Survivors take their blows and chalk them up to life experience. They are resourceful--every situation has something to teach them. They hunger for life; they probe its depths, reinvent themselves, come out both arms swinging. Artists are survivors who revere beauty; they seek an image's secrets, like those of the old growth Bowdoin pine. Dillard says in The Writing Life:
Who but an artist fierce to know...would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those sane secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instrument's faint tracks. It's the writer who wrestles with the alligators of language to portray hidden, mythical meanings and help illuminate so we may "feel again the mystery and power."
But I digress.
Write, Laurette, write.
Victims are beggars not choosers. They beg life for opportunities and whine hopelessly when life does not deliver. We're all survivors and victims to some extent, but we should revere the aim of the survivor. We should see ourselves as survivors.
Survivors have confidence in their abilities. They remember their successes and build upon them. They call forth ingenuity and reap its rewards. Survivors see life as "happening" not "happening to them"; they're a faithful lot and know their bearings. They know the nearest safe harbor.
Victims see every land-ho as a shipwreck. They think of all the shipwrecks of yesteryear, the flotsam and jetsam of spilled life bobbing in the waves never leaves them.
"No victim" is my new motto.
People left gifts for the old growth Bowdoin pine; it was perhaps the greatest one there, the elder, the chief, the survivor of all survivors. There were dried flowers, feathers, and small notes tacked to its bark in reverence. One has to wonder just how deep its roots go, just how high its highest branch. If I were to sit at the top of the old growth Bowdoin pine, how far could I see? Could I see a ship coming to port, the letters on the underbelly of an airplane? What would it be like to leap from limb to old growth limb, leaping and landing, caught by the spindly hands and then thrown upward with a whisper-swish? I think of the majestic sway of the old growth Bowdoin pine; I think of its solidity and stillness, how I seek this stillness and solidity and rootedness in my meditation. But my mind is a flittering bird, tapping at each crumb thrown its way.
Here is a painting by Jean Kigel of a Bowdoin pine:
Kigel did paintings of the pines and exhibited them in Brunswick in 2013. Here's another:
If the first pine is ready to embrace, the second is dancing: we can recognize the emotion, the tenderness, the finesse in stillness. They are rugged and fierce, the characteristics of a survivor, but they are not stoic or stolid. Is this not how we should all be?
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Kim Aubrey’s debut short story collection “What We Hold in Our Hands” is sensual, real, and richly contemplative. Readers immediately feel a kinship with Aubrey’s characters—flawed and seemingly stunted as they may be—and can’t help but champion their efforts, the baby steps they take to self-awareness.
In “Over Our Heads,” a teen mother named Janelle longs to be rid of the shackles of marriage/motherhood and embrace the artistic life. This story teeters on possibility and poor decisions that never materialize, thankfully, due to the protagonist’s sense of morality. Janelle is tempted to have an affair with one of her sister’s ex-boyfriends; they meet periodically in a café to talk about books, and although she claims she wants literature not sex from Jackson, she allows the sexual feeling to surface and longs “to pull Jackson close, to feel his bristly face on (her) lips, his hot, sweet breath on (her) neck.” Aubrey’s sensual style is titillating at best, but she makes her message quite clear: Janelle is a woman of conviction, despite all else and this is especially evident in her choice to have her baby, Alice:
I’d appointed myself her champion…I swooped down and saved Alice from non-existence…I’d grown her inside me and pushed her out into the world. But then came the hard part, the days and nights when I had to admit that I might not be up to the job, that the cape I’d donned might not be enough to separate me from the mothers I’d heard about on the news.
The trope of the super hero is appropriate on two levels: Janelle wishes to not only save but be saved and this hope is extended to all troubled mothers. Janelle imagines the superheroes of her beloved comic books “swooping in to rescue, not only the babies, but the mothers too.” What mother has not felt the weight of her sacrifice and needed saving? It’s a crazy-aunt-in-the-basement kind of truth all mothers can relate to and Aubrey does an exquisite job of laying it bare. More important, however, is the theme of coming through a struggle—despite the all too human wish to shrug it off and escape—and how this alone is heroic.
In “Unfinished,” Ann, an empty-nester struggling with her new identity, attends an interactive Yoko Ono exhibit that brings her face to face with her unresolved self, a creative, passionate self she has long suppressed. Ann answers a ringing phone in the exhibit (conveniently titled “YES”) and it’s Yoko on the other line. Ann tells her she loves the exhibit, where glass keys represent opportunities, shards of glass, mornings past, and the number nine, “a spiritual number, meaning unfinished.” When Ann tells Yoko she wants a glass key, Yoko tells her to take it. This is too self-indulgent for Ann at this point; she needs to return to the exhibit again and again, wait for Yoko’s call, miss it, long for her to call again, witness Yoko having her clothes clipped from her and “clutching her arms to her chest, bra straps snipped, slip pared away, breathing hard.”
Aubrey is remarkably patient with her character, meticulously crafting Ann’s wonder and reflection as she processes Yoko’s provocative lessons. Ann ponders the artist’s devotion to her work, comparing this to her own devotion to family and career; she eventually questions her own perspective and encounters her regrets full on. We see that the exhibit is Aubrey’s clever way of leading Ann back to the forsaken artist and recognizing this sets Ann free, allowing her passionate self to rise, as evident by an uncharacteristically bold act.
In “A Large Dark,” Andre, disgruntled and newly divorced, takes a watercolor painting class to escape himself, but finds his marital frustrations seeping into his work:
He painted the oblong of a big rock, but started to do the shadow too soon, and the paint ran. That flower of dark spreading across the rock tweaked his old impatience with himself. He felt the bad mood rise in his chest, rush through his blood…Now the night was goddamn ruined. Liz was the one responsible for these moods. The goddamn divorce couldn’t come soon enough.
We learn how Andre is guilty of objectifying women: he was most happy when his wife Liz was Suzy homemaker or using her body “to nourish their child”; he pays the housekeeper, Bridget, who has become a surrogate mother to his son, “to uphold (his) bourgeois” and seeks the attention of a classmate because he needs “a woman to make his life add up again.” But just when Andre thinks Bridget and Liz are conspiring against him and the reader anticipates a backlash of feminism, it’s kindness Andre receives, which settles him, “erasing his failures, easing his guilt.”
Not all of the stories involve art as a catalyst to self-awareness, but I especially enjoyed the ones that do. I feel that I have become wiser after reading this collection of stories and perhaps more aware of my own subtle resolutions. These stories tell me, yes, there is resolution, despite our convoluted inner and outer worlds, and it can be freeing and it can be heart wrenching, but it is there and it should count.
Saturday, September 27, 2014
It's a fine day in March for snowshoeing
and we take the new path abutting the CSA farm
where there is now a fence-- the same fence
at which the deer halt and peer in
at all that is ripe and lush.
Uphill, I trudge, the claws of my snowshoe
scratch at old ice as I search for the portal
they had found through the brambles.
I loosen my scarf and unzip my coat,
useless, a bear hide across my shoulders.
The slender trunks of gray rise up
from mottled white and scrape the blue sky;
My dog trots her lady dog trot beside me.
My sister, behind me, is further away now
thinking of all the things she could be doing.
I saw them early one fall morning
in the pink mesh of the thicket
crossing the creek, a heard of quiet
in the woods, surefooted and sentient.
They startled me, and I them
and they went to higher ground through
this portal in the brambles.
They perched above me, silent
as if they were etchings on a cave wall
A flutter of tails, they took no chances
and being the mythical creatures
they are, vanished.
This Way, I shout to my sister
who has turned back, who has lost hope
who has no time for guesswork.
My dog nervously pants, as a slender
green whip catches my thigh and
another scratches my cheek. A fallen
limb here, there, my snowshoe a shutter
swaying on its hinge. I lose my pole and it
too is a slender thing in the snow.
I fight. I slash at the thorns,
I stab and curse all of the year's failures.
Like a tall oak, I sway and creak.
A tendril claws at my cheek. I try
to come through; I think of coming through.
My sister's voice is small and importunate. This way.
In the snow-- prints, hooves, pellets; they
could be watching me. I wait; I wait longer
than I should have. I give up, head back
to the farm where the path is wide and easy.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
There is a schism in a cliff in Maine
Where I slipped down through the moss
And knelt in the sand of the river bank
A gilded snake coiled my head, a crown
A carried cloak ruffled my ears
Then turned to wings.
I flew above the firs, I flew
Knowing how to fly, I flew.
I dove, knowing how to dive
And emerged among the selkie women
Lounging without a care on rocks
Picking at Damariscotta oysters
Licking salted pearls, humming
And pruning till nightfall.
At the shore, my father’s form flickered
As the morning fog dusted the cove
He was horse. He was man.
He was horse again.
I grabbed his mane and hoisted myself
Upon his back and rode out
Remembering, how he carried me
(When I was far too old for carrying)
On his shoulders, through the crowds
Over the Jersey boardwalk,
My useless feet tucked under his arms.
Saturday, September 6, 2014
Every morning, the kitchen sink, filled with soaking pots, sippy cups, dishes, silverware. Every morning, the locust trees, on guard in the backyard; the neighbor’s dog lunging at the screen as we walk by. Every morning a plastic Dunkin Donuts cup (with straw) tossed in the overgrowth. The camp kids gathering under the boxelder, kicking soccer balls and playing tag. Every morning, crows, quotidian and legion, strutting in the grass, perching on the backstop. Summer makes the minutiae of suburbia ever more prominent and yet, in the midst of all mundane, there is an undercurrent of mindfulness and also, discovery. My twin toddlers discovered flowers and ants and rocks. Black-eyed Susans were Stevie's favorite, while Marielle preferred small white clovers, insignificant to anyone or anything else except bees. Once, she carried around a small dried blade of grass for hours.
(Go out and make your own discoveries importunes Dr. Scott, the paleontologist, on Dinosaur Train).
This summer I discovered the blackberry bushes in the woods by Ayer School, sweet, dark gems that reminded me of Jefferson, NJ, and specifically, Lake Morskioko. I spent part of my childhood there at the lake, where the blackberries grew on the side of a steep, narrow dirt road to the entrance, and pickerel fish wavered in sunlight near high grasses; where daring girls aligned themselves perfectly on the high dive and fell blindly backward, and wet feet slapped at concrete. I had learned to swim there, and dive, push myself into the chilly morning water and feel the immediate and imposed vigor of being awake.
My kids continued their discovery of words; they repeated them like parrots, sang them, adorably mispronounced and misused them. Mary was more confident; she said them like she knew what she was talking about but didn't mind being corrected. She parroted Mommy (still does) to test the words on her lips, see how they sound, memorize them for later. Stevie pronounced quasi-sentences tentatively (still does), looking at me to see if he's got it right and he was so endearing, I ached.
I have discovered my aging body. Sprouts of gray here and there, age spots, aches. My most precious finding in July was a small wooden bench someone tossed in the woods behind Ayer school. I had been thinking about this bench nearly a month before I found it. The rocks at the park are too low to the ground and hard; I have long needed a sitting place of ample height to rest and even meditate while Josie takes a break from her morning fetching. This sitting place needed to be natural (I thought of a log, but where would I get it and how would I get it there?) something subtle, under the radar of potential thieves. One day I saw the little bench stuffed into a bramble bush behind the school. I trekked out of the woods with the it resting against my hip and brought it to the place under the boxwood tree where I had (and continue to have, as long as the weather keeps) a few moments of meditation in the morning.
Josie has aged as well with her ever-whitening snoot, the slight lift to her paws when she lies down, as if she's getting her nails done. Evidence of arthritis.
At twilight one evening in early August, I heard a screech owl. I was sitting at the kitchen table after clearing the dinner dishes, checking the weather on the ipad, when I heard a trill. It's a bird, I thought. A frog? I rushed outside and heard it again coming from the darkening woods. It was pleasant, serendipitous, like an unexpected kiss on the cheek, but more than this: it was totemic. My husband heard it too. Owl, he said. My neighbors apparently heard nothing, because they continued to talk loudly and eventually scared the critter away. I returned to the ipad and researched owl calls. I found him; the diminutive screech owl whose call was nothing like a screech at all, but a soft, whistle, a sonorous purr. So here was a thing vastly different from its name, evidence that something must be experienced to know what it truly is.
[Source: Southern Wisconsin Atlas And Field Guide]
Sometime in mid August, I got it in my head to do collages; this is what some call "found" art. The etiolation of summer flowers, the heat of the summer daze, had me searching for a portal to vibrancy. I fetched a copy of Architectural Digest (a magazine that appeared one day in the mail, sans subscription) cut out an image of a non-descript white house and placed it atop a mountain range with Laura Bush's flowers in the foreground (her summer ranch home was featured). The background was a gilded glow, a southwestern evening. In this collage, I had found a fictitious place and solved a mystery: I imagined my deceased father living there, atop the Southern Sierras. He always loved the west.
Now, the semester has begun and the kids have started going to daycare twice a week. Our lives are filling with things to do and the mundane has been eclipsed by urgency. It feels good to be in the groove again, to have a role outside of my house. But I will miss this summer’s slow undercurrent of mindfulness made apparent and remember the gifts it brought.