"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Monday, August 15, 2011

Where are the Visionaries?

If you look up the word 'visionary' on dictionary.com this is what it will give you:

  1. Given to or characterized by fanciful not presently workable or unpractical ideas, views or schemes; a visionary enthusiast.
  2. Given to or concerned with seeing visions.
  3. Belonging to or seen in a vision.
  4. Unreal; imaginary: visionary evils.
  5. Purely idealistic or speculative; impractical; unrealizable: a visionary scheme.
  6. Of , pertaining to, or proper to a vision.
  7. A person of unusually keen foresight.
  8. A person who sees visions.
  9. A person who is given to audacious, highly speculative or impractical ideas of schemes; dreamer.

One can't help but wonder why the definition in number 7 isn't the first definition, the one most used, most relevant. One may think having put this definition so low in the ranking it really doesn't have much value, that the term visionary isn't taken very seriously. Could this be indicative of a larger problem, something, perhaps happening in our society right now?

I asked myself who I thought were visionaries. The first person I came up with was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He had a vision (a dream, as he called it) amongst rampant persecution and he orchestrated an alternative way to live a life, preached about it despite all the animosity toward him and his philosophy. I think many people thought his vision wasn't very practical, wasn't very possible, but in January of 2009, we witnessed that dream, that vision come to fruition. So there's one, MLK. Picasso too was a visionary. Who knew life could be interpreted in shapes? What sort of mind creates something like that? What was the point of that? Was it practical? Did it do anyone a bit of good? Yes it did and does do the world some good because it teaches people to “see” differently, and learning how to see differently means stepping out of yourself, out of your own mindset and embracing someone else's. This “open mindedness” is the stuff of empathy, of appreciation, of change.

One might even say a visionary, a good one, sparks something in others and a “movement” is created. In the case of Martin Luther King Jr., it was the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of Picasso, it was Cubism. This “movement” calls an entire collection of people to jump on the bandwagon of the visionary, to think and create and connect with one another by the sharing of ideas.

James Joyce, another visionary. Who would think to write down the jibberish the mind churns? The “stream of consciousness” bandwagon included writers like Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Henry Miller. Our minds are not refined like a Jane Austen novel. The first thoughts, untethered, and unfiltered, are alive with hunger and energy; they contain the raw us and illuminate the very root of emotion, intention, and action. But then again, Austen too was a visionary. Her vision bandwagon said Women Have Brains Too, women can challenge men by intellect and spunk alone.

Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez...visionaries. Who says the dead can't be a character? Who says people can't go around eating dirt? Was that practical? Visionaries know we are not only about practicality; we are not only about paying the bills, mowing the lawn, feeding the children. We have entire worlds inside us; some people have foresight into those worlds. This is why we should listen, this is why we should read, this is why we should create. All artists, all creators must be visionaries. Vincent Van Gogh once said, “it is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper understanding.” That deeper understanding is called vision, and if you are rightly close to your work, this naturally develops and leads the way.

I think now, more than ever in our overanalyzed, overpopulated, overstimulated existence, we need visionaries. We need people who can lead, who can come up with better ways to live (not just faster ways, better ways), who make us see life differently, who challenge us, who make us less afraid.

I read this essay to a writer's forum I used to run and asked the audience who they thought were modern day visionaries. One person said Barack Obama. Another Al Gore. Another the people at Whole Foods. No one had mentioned a contemporary writer or artist or musician. This worried me.

Why is definition number 7 so low on the totem pole? Is it because society values efficiency, practicality and economy more than anything else? Is it because things have become so complicated that no one person can truly make a difference? Or has the energy of creativity become less refined and more dispersed so that we have many facebook pages and websites with a smattering of ideas but no one prominent visionary, no one Gaugin or Ghandi or Woolf. Or are these visionaries embedded in the communities, making small change here and there, speaking their voices at open mics or by way of blogs or publishing books with small presses, or selling their paintings on the street, or under the discerning eye of academia? If this is the case, has the true artist, the visionary become marginalized and are we afraid to admit that to ourselves and do something about it?

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Stuff of Suffering

August 5, 2011

I had a student ask me once why literature is depressing. “Almost everything we've read, quality literature, but depressing as all hell.” It's a fair question. I can't remember what I told him, but I hope it was this: Yes, most of good literature is depressing because it is about suffering. And there is a lot of stuff in suffering. Happiness and contentment is fairly straightforward. Suffering is always unfolding, facet upon facet. Suffering and all its stuff, is about transformation and transformation is growth and I have to believe this is why we're here, plopped down on this planet and all its head-scratching experiences, to evolve spiritually. There is this great scene in the movie Little Miss Sunshine where the characters discuss suffering. Here it is:

Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap-high school and everything-just skip it.
Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
Dwayne: He's the guy you teach.
Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh... he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18... Ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.

Suffering also allows for empathy. We recognize in others what we have felt ourselves and this produces immediate community. No, I am not alone with these dark thoughts and here's the proof, right here in this book. Great literature is true empathy that exceeds the confines of time and space. It helps us change, and by this, it moves humankind to a higher plane. This is why it is more important than religion, because religion tends to divide. Great literature breaks down barriers. Great literature spans borders and unveils the same human experience, albeit in different shapes in colors, but that's what makes the fabric of life so interesting, yet not so foreign, we cannot recognize it. I think of the muslim poet Rumi; he lived thousands of years ago, in a different country, a Muslim and a man. I am a Christian woman living in the twenty first century and I see myself and what I know of humanity in his poems. That's success in literature right there, when a writer and a reader connect like that.
This is also another argument agents should not get so caught up in plot. They're always looking for a plot that sells (they may tell you they are looking for strong characters, but that's hogwash). Look, agents, there's only so many plot lines out there. We got the coming of age plot line, the person in a bad marriage plot line, the love story plot line, the demented killer plot line, the missing persons/mystery plot line yada yada yada. And yes, these plot lines degenerate into genres, but only if the characters are lacking. It's characters that connect us, not plot lines. And good characters make good literature. They get us thinking about our own lives; they may even set our course.

August 1, 2011

Some poems exist still on the other side of our lives
And shine out
but we'll never see them.
They are unutterable, in a language without an alphabet.
Unseen. World-long. Bone music.

These are stanzas from Charles Wright's poem “Body and Soul II”. It got me thinking, if there are unwritten poems kept in a secret vault, perhaps there are children there as well, and love affairs, and the socks you lost in the laundry. And maybe this place runs by different rules, and maybe we carry this place with us where ever we go.

55. Death and I

I stop at a lemonade stand
at the side of the road
and Death is counting his money.
His skin is draped
over his bones like an oiled
hide. I see his lackluster
sockets, dirt underneath
his fingernails, his felled

The flowers around him
are turning out seed
and birds fly in to rampage
the withering stalks.
Hurry up! Hurry up!
my dog says, her tongue
dancing over the glass.

I spy the iced pitcher,
and my mouth waters.
Ask how much for a cup.
Ten dollars, Death says,
and his arm falls off.

My dog laughs.

Ten cents, I barter, like
every other kid on the block.

Inflation, Death replies.
Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Nothing I can do about it.

Damn right. (Small talk)
Everyday, something
bruised or busted.
Battles inside us, forged.

Death drums his good fingers
on his knee. Fetches the arm
and tosses it to the compost pile,
which is everything.

(On second thought)
I know the deals you make.
I've seen you crouch
and whisper in ears like a lover.

Now wait a minute, Death says
picking at his teeth
with a splint in his good hand.

You wait a minute.
My father's swan song.
For hours and hours.
What did you say to him
to make him quit?
If I told you, I'd have to kill you,
Death says.

Oh yes. Perhaps a hard wired
bolt in the brain? Or the heart?
I've thought about
that moment.
A lump, a spot, an ache, a steering
wheel filleted and fried?

Ay, aware of every last inconsistency,
Jesus. I would hate to be you, he says.

Do you stir when your
knife whittles away at the pith?
You coo, then dice us to pieces.

Sallowed, well yes. (Death clears his
throat, ahem ahem).
Blood retreats to the four corners,
The mind says to the heart: you're
fired. Get your shit and get out.
The heart telephones the soul,
Listen, there's a train leaving
in an hour.

The soul, that quicksilver dash-
(Death clears his throat
` a second time, ahem-)
that aeroplane with its engine
tagging five miles behind, that
pinhole of ricocheted light- he smiles
and spits out a tooth.

I remembered then, the angels
tapping at the windows and doors.
The stone rolled away from our
front door. The bed sheets empty.
That glorious October sky.

My dog hiccups then whines.

A cloud burst of birds, now
their wings speaking in tongues.

The grass behind me whispers
and people come
dressed like Mennonites in
black hats and bonnets. They barter,
settle, and drink it all down.
Through the fields they go,
children again.

Death packs up his imaginary wagon,
tips his imaginary hat.

See you later alligator, he says.
In awhile, crocodile.