My friend Steve is fighting cancer. I won’t expand, but among his friends we’ve all been worried about financial resources. This came to a point tonight when he invited me down to his studio. He pulled out several pieces that he had been working on before his illness sidelined him, and offered me my pick at a bargain-basement discount.

Completely floored, I kept on digging. Painting after painting reflected the culmination the I extolled previously in Designed, Seen, Felt, Expressed. It wasn’t just the landscapes – it’s also showing up in his paintings of tribal women.

Steve had a fascination for Native American culture in his childhood, and recently traced it to a prior life. The tribal experience of immersion in the natural world goes beyond the sensory perceptions. It includes awareness of the powerful interconnectedness of things. From that root he also carries a deep sense of the injustice that European culture has wreaked upon the natural world.

The work I saw tonight threads the needle between representation and abstraction. Through color contrasts and plastic layering, he vitality and energy of the natural world seem to leap off the canvas – and yet delicate washes and luminous backgrounds preserve the sense of ecological harmony and balance.

Yin and Yang. Masculine and Feminine. Design and Expression.

The problem was evident when another friend showed up. She immediately pointed to a boat picture on the wall, the most concrete representation. I praised that work when Steve put it on display, but it’s a confrontation with nature, not an awed celebration. She didn’t seem to recognize that power in his recent work.

Will others? Can Steve explain it to them?

In the end, I couldn’t buy anything. The works need to be seen, and I don’t have a place for that appreciation to occur. Those that are incomplete need to be finished.

They bear witness to the relationships that our artificial reality has sundered. They prepare us to process the intensity of the natural world when it must be confronted. They celebrate its beauty and honor its power.

If we do not integrate those truths into the manner of our living, none of us will survive. Steve: we need your witness!

Designed, Seen, Felt, Expressed

When the technology of painterly representation had approached photo-realism in the 1700’s, academic art filled the museums and sitting rooms, but eventually its practitioners came under attack for their trite formulations. A series of movements attempted to recapture the experience of a scene: Impressionism its atmospheric qualities; Expressionism the observer’s sensitivities; Cubism the fragmentary memory; and Fauvism the raw sensation. Progressively, the artist sought not to render a scene, but to evoke a response in the viewer.

When I met Steve Richardson out at the Santa Barbara Art Walk, he lamented his popular pieces. Steve had been taught in a style similar to that of George Inness, an 1800s American that celebrated the tamed landscape. Eventually, Inness represented the world as a garden, and so did Steve. The paintings were harmonious, soothing, beautiful.

The patch that Steve extolled to me was in the background of a field. In front of the tree line, a crudely painted bush demanded attention. The colors were not blended in the strokes, but asserted their own identify before submitting to life-like hues.

Steve has come back to that canvas again and again. The soothing grass now argues among the blades, as living grass does. The backlit trees grumble at the passage of the light. But that patch of brush still shouts over it all. It is out of character.

Crude brushwork is not the only technique that Steve has exercised in his expressive aggression. The palette knife is a favorite on boats – one thrusting boldly from a chaotic pier – and on monuments. Clouded shores and skies are summarized with thin washes that pool in gesso ridges. On trees silhouetted against sunlight, leaves dance as spatter drops.

I’ve argued with Steve without effect. He pleases his eye – and his eye is discerning. But art is a way of expressing the inner nature of things.  Rather than incomprehension, I sense a real resistance to this idea. He seems to not want to reveal himself that deeply to the world.

So I was astonished when, having pulled two art boards painted on the shore with the same palette, he pulled up two more. I think he was interested in which I liked the most, and I sorted them and said: “Steve, this is absolutely amazing.”

The first, largest piece is in his original style: designed to please, but generic – almost trite. It doesn’t convey the reality of the subject but an idea of a relationship we have with nature. Nature is to soothe. Nature is to conform to our sensibilities.


The next piece is obviously representative of a specific setting, but the textures of the paint still show the artist’s caution. Things shouldn’t bump too harshly against one another. The large fields caress one another even when they don’t yield.


And then the third: the action of the finger is obvious, the fog imposing itself on the rock. In the foreground the energy of the wash is suggested by in the blurred vigor of the finger’s path. The paint reveals the physical feeling of its application. The eye submits to touch.


And finally, the artistic sensibility completely surrenders. The elements of the scene are offered in blotches. The rough edges of the rock argue with the sky and water – the stark blue of the latter only visible as a breaker that crashes against the cliff. The brownish sunlight blares from the wash and the billowed fog. The elements express their nature in contrast each to the other.


Seeming to me, as it were, as they were before they were ever seen at all – knowing each other only as fields of force, some less obdurate, but all seeking to assert their nature.

This is not the artist’s sensibility; it is not the human response: it is the expression of things in of themselves working through the artist.

Reductio ad Consterno

In the Darwinian sense, humanity’s greatest asset is its intellect. The expressions of human intellect are so unique in the animal kingdom that it is not possible to understand its character and limitations by study of other creatures. Furthermore, the creative power of intellect is such that for many of us the natural world is no longer part of our experience. This is true even in the Third World, where most land once wild is now cultivated (where it has not been rendered arid), and the predators that dominated those ecosystems may be slaughtered to produce aphrodisiacs for the Chinese market.

And so man is the most self-involved of all creatures.

In the animal kingdom, evolutionary advantage is a simple proposal: a creature either lives or dies. In human societies, however, methods such as agriculture demanded attention to politics. Freed from the daily concerns of physical survival against the natural tyrannies (hunger, disease, the elements and predation), the danger is that our fellows will organize to seize our goods, break up our families, and take our lives. To a large degree, our survival depends upon inventing reasons for them to not do these things, and indoctrinating them to live according to those constraints.

The easiest way to accomplish this is the path of illusion – to invent entertainments that consumers believe will bring them benefits greater than the price of entry. The trick of tyranny, of course, is to replace the suckers just at the moment that they start demanding more than they contribute. That makes primitive societies terribly unstable.

The alternate path is the path of reason, which is properly understood to be philosophy, or the study of the operation of the intellect. As urban societies arose, three great cultures gave rise to distinct philosophical traditions: China produced Confucianism, India gave birth to the Veda (and its outgrowth, Buddhism) and the Occident sired Hellenism.

Despite their differences, these three threads of philosophical thought share similar concerns. Given that the intellect exists, what does it operate on? What are its virtues and pathologies? How do we strengthen the former and heal the latter?

Those explorations were formalized and documented in societies that were all making the transition to urban culture. This meant, on the one hand, that their ideas were made stronger through competition with the ideas of other thinkers. But many of the early philosophers also stood in opposition to the moral decay (one of the pathologies of intellect) that festers in urban societies. They celebrated a life in harmony with nature – nature that in its forms and behaviors expresses the most durable truths.

The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle neatly encapsulate the tensions that arise in the study of the intellect. Socrates was a man of leisure in ancient Athens who set out to discover truth, and rapidly learned that his questioning attitude revealed the emptiness of what others heralded as wisdom. Socrates broke the spell of illusion, and was sentenced to death for his troubles.

Socrates’ student Plato realized that the forms of nature were too diverse and imperfect to yield to rigorous categorization and analysis. What differentiates a fox from a dog from a wolf? Where is there any perfectly straight line in nature? Plato and his followers therefore celebrated the abstractions of the mind – or ideas – which were perfect and infinitely malleable, and therefore could be synthesized. Eventually, Plato came to believe that ideas had an independent existence, and were actually the originals from which arose natural phenomenon.

Observing that ideas in of themselves were of no practical use, Plato’s student Aristotle asserted that it was from the study of nature that ideas arise. The concept of “dog” arises naturally in the mind of those that interact with dogs, as a kind of convenient short-hand (a “categorization”) for the similarities of our sensory experiences when interacting with real dogs. Aristotle did not stop there, however, but built a formal logic that could be used to assess the internal consistency of our sets of categories, and applied it to categorization of the natural world around him.

One way of reconciling Plato and Aristotle is to observe that ideas allow us to improve the forms of nature. While perhaps a perfectly straight line cannot be created, rulers are really useful devices, helping us to build sturdy homes, roads and aqueducts. And an understanding of the characteristics of dogs and their variability allows us to benefit greatly from their companionship and hunting skill, while preventing us from trying to get them to serves as mules.

But there was another thread in this conversation in the ancient world, a thread that many modern philosophers tend to deprecate. Plato celebrated ideas not only for their malleability, but also because he was convinced that the mind participated in forms of experience that were not tangible to the physical senses. This was evident in Socrates’ statements just before taking his hemlock, in which he consoled his followers with the assurance that he was simply laying down his physical form to take up conversation with the great thinkers of the past. It is also evident in the rites of passage in pre-urban cultures, which often include a merging with animal or divine consciousness – mergings that have no obvious physical manifestation but that can be sensed by the wise.

This thread is exposed most directly in Indian philosophy. Trying to find a solid basis for managing the natural world, Indian philosophers rapidly realized that we do not have direct experience of nature – everything is mediated by our senses. Diving into a study of the senses, they encountered the vagaries of the mind: two people observing the same phenomenon emphasize different things. A beautiful woman may be an object of desire to one man, but “mother” to another. Plumbing the depths of how we form intentions, the Indian philosophers consistently encountered, beneath all of our corrupting interests, an eternal presence of universal love. As mystics withdrawing from the world of things to celebrate that presence, often reduced to penury, they became irrelevant. Prompted by the longing of love to be revealed in service to all people, the mystics began to study to problems of their peers, which were almost always practical. And so the cycle was renewed in the study of nature.

In the West, the turning of this cultural wheel was impeded by the rise of Christianity and Islam, both of which celebrate prophets and propagate rituals that purport to guide the faithful into the presence of the love celebrated by the Indian mystics.

The key word here is “purport.” Because relationship with the divine is discerned reliably only by the wise, religion falls all-too-easily into the pattern of illusion. This is not only a fault in the leaders of religions. who find it all too easy to turn their authority to material benefit (witness the success today of those peddling prosperity theology). Many adherents are also seeking charity, and not always from legitimate need. Blocked by self-seeking, they often fail to attain any meaningful mystical union.

What saddens me about modern academic philosophy is that it has succumbed almost entirely to Aristotelean materialism. It ignores or trivializes the Platonic experience of soul relation. It therefore surrenders fully half of the power of the human intellect, and in particular the half that allows us to tap into the energies that give strength to compassion and charity.

While they may appear narcissistic, my writings here are an attempt to give courage to those that recognize this great want in our hearts. In attempting to surrender myself as a servant to love, I have had many great and joyful experiences. But it is not of me that the greatness arises. From me arises only the hungering to feel joy, and the hope that it will not be denied me.


She came to me this morning with a passionate, healing warmth. Our dreams tumbled through postures of intimacy, until it occurred to me that pleasure was nature’s trick on women, the bait used to tempt them into surrender to masculine wildness. It is time for that trick to be redeemed in trust, so as she rode on me I washed her with waves of healing energy, waves rising and falling as she rose and fell, until she was overcome and lay vibrating in my arms.

In that surrender she passed away from herself into an emptiness that forbade my entry. As I crept around its borders I discovered women, women arrayed in a shell, a shell annealed of the pride that resisted true sisterhood.

She returned to me enlarged, cocooning me in her soul as I imagined her in my arms. This certainty of security swept through me, and I found myself in contemplation of her.

The strong legs that carry her across the world, and the delicate toes that tenderly root in the biomes that attend her arrival. The hands and fingers that vibrate with awareness on all sides, gliding through water and air to signal caring and joy. The ovaries that offer new possibilities, and the womb in which they attain realization. The mouth that receives sustenance, the lungs and digestive system that process it, and the outward return of waste that enriches the soil and air for plants. The eyes, ears and nose that receive adoration, the voice that sings in praise. The hair that protects the vault of her mind by entangling contrary personalities. The skin that wards danger yet thrills to tenderness.

And myself, the humble tool of her self-creation, looking down the trail of time that stretched behind her, realizing that I had never been in control of this process. By all the common measures I have achieved and experienced nothing, but this was worth living for.

Sunday, Blessed Sunday

Friday found me complete worn out – I actually spoke with my supervisor about taking most of this week off. Greg, my younger son, rescued me, after a fashion. His classmates finished the transition to college this week, so he was at lose ends. Runescape is having one of its “Double-XP” weekends, and he was anticipating spending 72-hours glued to a monitor. I convinced him to come out to Barnes and Noble with me all three evenings. We sat on the bar stools along the counter – he reading an assigned novel for English and I working on C# exercises.

We did take some time off Saturday to take in The Intern, having a discussion of “class”, which I like to think of as a quality of character that preserves dignity. But while he ground away at his MMORPG, I went to bed early and slept, and added long naps in the afternoon.

I decided to go down to Culver City today to spend time with Jo Corbett and the community she nurtures with 5 Rhythms dance celebrations. It’s been more than a year since my last visit. I’ve been nurturing heartbreak, and am still very much in love with the woman that I lost down there. What can I say: the day that I met her, I was dancing alone, and turned around to find her gesturing with her arm in the air. We started dancing together, and the connection was just incredibly clear and strong. I noticed the people around us smiling. When I was done, I stepped back to bow in Namaste, and she called me closer, until I stood with my lips against her temple, whispering “That was so beautiful.”

What I realized was that, while with every woman before her, I felt like I was being drawn in and wrapped up, the dance that we had shared involved an expanding through each other. That night, my dreams were filled with turmoil, with people clamoring for my notice, only resolving in the early hours of the morning when she announced “I was Persephone.” The last time I saw her, I told her “Jamie Grace, every time I see you, I see all of life. Everything that I have done here has been in an effort to give you the power you need to heal yourself. I am sorry it hurts, and I wish that they would just stop.”

I still dream of her, but her mother is also in the community, and seems to still believe that she has the right to manage our affairs. So I withdrew, hoping that my lady would call me back when she was ready to take on the work that we were meant to do together.

It seemed that the signals were becoming more positive, so I decided to head back down. I woke this morning, however, to a tumult in my mind, with churches all over the Conejo Valley clamoring for my visit. I thought to go out to Malibu for some peace, but the early services were all underway by the time I was ready to leave. So I decided to just skip church, and go out to Malibu Creek State Park.

Pool at Malibu Creek State Park

It was not entirely a mistake. I haven’t been out there in years, and was devastated that the river was dry. The chattering voices on the trail kept interrupting my communion, so I headed down the bank to the dry, lime-covered river rocks. I crept back to the trail at the bridge crossing. A shady copse called to me, but I kept on heading down the trail, and was surprised to hear what I took to be rustling in the dried leaves from the other bank. The wind didn’t seem strong, and when I rounded the last curve, I was happy to see the source of my error: apparently the Park was diverting water to the pools that blocked the trail at its end. I sat in the shade of a reed bed to luxuriate in the air’s moisture.

Down in Culver City, I encountered many new faces, but no Jamie Grace. I did what I always do there, however, trying to clear the psychological space around those that needed it, letting them connect to the healing energies that were trying to reach them.

What was really different, however, was that others began to reach out to me. This culminated near the end of the celebration. Jo was playing a melancholy meditation on the modern state of affairs, with lyrics that prayed for patience from an unknown source. I internalized the plea as directed to the Earth itself, and felt just overwhelmed by the sorrow of the land that we had suffocated with asphalt and concrete. As I bowed my head to the floor, two people came up to press on my back.

That had never happened before.

Recovering somewhat, I rolled over, and felt this beautiful energy reaching down to me from the sky. Jack-knifing to bring my heart closer to the heavens, I was suffused with joy, and laid down on my back, arms outstretched. I felt hands on my head, and a gentleman stroking my solar plexus. They kept on stretching me out, perhaps not understanding what they were unlocking.

And so it happened again, for the third time in the last three months. My heart filled with sorrow, and I arched on my back and shouted my agony. They didn’t run away, but hung on as my body arched in powerful spasms, settling only to arch again. Gathering myself, I shut the door again, and rested. When I recovered, I embraced them each in turn to whisper, “It’s going to be OK.”

There must have been some talking as I changed, because afterwards two women came up to ask if I was the man that had “cleared” today. Upon my confirmation, they said that they were really glad that I had – that everybody in the room felt a great release when I did – and thanked me for having the courage to share my sorrow with them.

I know what specific images I have when these experiences occur, and often wonder whether others share them. But they seemed confused when I alluded to the matter. They weren’t directly involved, however, but I wonder how long it will be until the consequentiality of the phenomenon is obvious to others.

Into the Garden

On the weekend of my 45th birthday, I woke at 2 AM and drove from Livermore to Yosemite. The summer sight-seers were still in their beds when I parked at the Swinging Bridge. As I neared the far bank of the Merced River, I spied a circle of sunlight among the redwoods. A feeling of joy came to me, like unto an encounter with a long-lost friend. I stepped into the circle and raised my arms to the sky, and felt the whole valley singing with happiness.

I don’t know if I can ever convey what it is like to enter fully into Christ. In the official biography of Pope John Paul II, there’s a picture of him sitting on the stage in Manila, alone amidst a throng of tens of thousands. His forehead is pressed into his palm. When I saw the picture, I felt the weight of their sorrows pressing against him in that moment.

To be in Christ is to feel all the anguish of a world that suffers from our inattention. It is to shoulder the burdens shirked by those that have the power to make a difference. As Jesus says [NIV Matt. 11:28-30]:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

This is the paradox: those that seek power seek this same freedom – freedom from fear, freedom from weariness, freedom for sorrow. And yet they seek it in material things, when only Christ can grant them that freedom, and even then only when they accept the burdens that love lays upon them. So they are forced to choose between their desire for freedom and the love of Christ, and most choose freedom.

Fundamentally, it was this contradiction that brought Jesus to the cross.

When I thought on this last night, lying awake in the dark after Mystery had once again tried to corrupt me, I remembered that moment in Yosemite, and I thought of Gethsemane, were Jesus testified [NIV Mark 14:34]:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

Where did that sorrow come from? Well, from the Garden itself, acknowledging the man that brought words of peace and healing into its midst, celebrating the hope that maybe finally mankind would stop warring against Nature, and grieving the knowledge that the impending response was his destruction.

God, how I miss the gardens of the world – the trees and scrub, the birds, foxes and deer. I have walked the hills here in Southern California as they dry up and burn, and my heart can hardly bear it any longer. Please, God, send me someplace where the garden and I can delight again in one another.