I am a creature of the deep force of habit. As so many of you might be able to relate to, my morning bowl of oats is at the hub that drives that wheel. The way I prepare them hardly changes through an entire season, and the arc of change is usually gradual, like the forces of geology or evolution. Nothing much for a long time, and then a substantial upheaval that settles back down into habit. I’ve shared my latest routine recently in the post My Favorite Weird Oatmeal. But this is about something different than that kind of shift.
Since the election and the proliferation of hate incidents, whoever is perpetrating them, I’ve found it hard to be enthusiastic about much in general. I miss my usual rather sunny panorama on life, but I try to stay present with the grief, numbness and uncertainty I might feel in any given moment. It isn’t easy to stay present, with all the click-baiting on social media and the deep sense that things on local, national and worlds stages have shifted into very volatile energy. But I do find if I am able to pay attention in the moment, even be gentle to myself with that sense of dread, I will be alert to see the light through all the cracks.
But it’s more than that. If it is true that there’s a crack in everything, as Leonard Cohen sings, then there’s also a crack in my dread, my numbness, the absolute overwhelm that seems to engulf me in some moments. And this morning I saw evidence of that. No, I experienced visceral evidence of it.
I was, as is my current cherished habit, preparing the base for My Favorite Weird Oatmeal–putting the gluten free oats, the powdered ginger, chopped apple, chopped date and water into the little stainless steal saucepan. All of a sudden, like the hummingbird that suddenly flew into the living room through the open front door a couple of weeks ago during a bout of bright sun, I was consumed with the playful idea to put a chai spice tea bag in the pan with everything else. As you know, Fig and Twig Tea Oatmeal has also been one of the results of the deep force of my Oatmeal Habit, but that entails steeping the tea first and letting it sit before using it in place of cooking water.
This was just an instantaneous impulse to play, to shake things up a bit. And I followed it. I had to be careful to place the teabag so that the string and tag would not catch on fire from hanging down to close to the burner, but finding a way to do that was fun too.
I noticed as I did this, that I was smiling, that I was playing. It didn’t matter at that moment that the oatmeal would probably not change color or not be sufficiently infused with tea flavor, or that it might not be infused at all. Or that I already put many of the spices that are in the tea bag on top of the finished oatmeal for a ‘dry rub’ kind of effect. And I noticed, as I went on to the next stage of morning habit–my second tier of yoga stretches while the oatmeal simmers–that I had a spring in my step. Just from that little second of play. It was upheld by the wafting aroma from the little teabag sitting at the edge of the pan while I stretched and the oatmeal finished.
Later, when I went to dish it out, I saw that most of the spices had concentrated in evaporated liquid in one spot. But I found when I had everything put together that the whole bowl of oats had a slightly infused chai taste to them.
It’s not that I’ve discovered the basis for a new recipe or changed the future of infused oatmeal. It’s more that something as ephemeral as following an impulse to play changed my whole demeanor on a gray rainy morning on the edge of the continent when the future feels deeply uncertain and scary, and it’s hard in some moments to know how to access feeling thankful, or feeling the spirit of Christmas so informed by generosity and good will.
But this is how. And this is what to be thankful for. To stay alert in the present moment to enough of the spectrum of my own humanity to allow myself to play.
That impulse to play can do more than perk up a bowl of oatmeal. Last night, amidst the storm of fake news stories and controversy, I decided I would take a break from the impulse to click and share things on Facebook so I could simply sit for a while in the garden of my own soul. Although I didn’t share it the millisecond after I saw it, I did see a story about a town near Albany, New York where a small swastika had been painted in the middle of a public crosswalk near a recreation area and not far from an elementary school. By the time the police got there to investigate it, the swastika had been graffitied over to this effect (my version in pastel form here):
My mother grew up near Albany and had her first teaching job not far from there. In her days just out of college before the Civil Rights movement, she taught at an inner city school where nearly all the children were African American. She brought an African American colleague home to dinner to her parents, and afterwards she called her on it when my grandmother double-washed all the silverware her colleague had eaten from. Seeing this little triumph of a news story from the Albany area felt as if the spirit of my mother was reminding me of the legacy of inclusiveness she gifted me through her life-long example. It felt like a hug of support from the beyond to “stay in the game,” an assurance that even the smallest gestures can have powerful and positive effects.
As I began this pastel I thought I would be recreating the graffiti exactly as it had been transformed in the photograph, but play had its way with me. At first I spent more time than usual toning the background and then creating the affect of asphalt. Then it struck me that if I was going to transform a swastika, I had better be willing to “play” both parts, and put the swastika on the paper to be transformed. To actively draw the swastika with all its current meaning was so emotionally difficult that reflexively I began to box it in before I had finished it. Only thus contained could I draw the final arms. Then, immersed in the process of coloring over it in the process of further transformation, I forgot to look back at the photograph of the original transforming graffiti. When I did, I found I had done the opposite of the original “love” graffiti artist: I colored all the negative space in with blue and left “love” as relief in the representational asphalt. This is the best kind of artistic process for me: one that exists in a flow that seems to confound all efforts to begin with a formal concept and stick to it. As I gaze at my efforts, I am aware I can almost see the swastika bleeding out from under the luminous blue. But in that glimpse it is returned for me back to its original meaning, which the United States Holocaust Museum site tells us was in use at least 5,000 years before the Nazis got hold of it. “Swastika” comes from the Sanskrit word svastika meaning “well being” or “good fortune” and was most likely a representation of the sun moving across the sky. It remains a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Janism and Odinism. I smile at the irony of its ancient non-white roots, and how I first learned of it in a book about goddess symbols. Perhaps my compassionate artistic play helped me recall and restore its original dignity, even in some tiny measure.
To play is serious business when it comes to the continued restoration of the human spirit. Whatever my difficulties are, I am thankful for those moments when play bursts through the cracks. It can come on suddenly, like a breeze lifts a single leaf, twirling at my feet. When that happens I do my best to dance with it, not just kick it out of the way, because I believe play is a key to the resiliency needed to remain whole. And that single twirling leaf of play can have far reaching consequences we can’t predict. Like Edward Lorenz’s model of the butterfly effect teaches us, sensitive dependence on initial conditions means it’s impossible to predict the weather exactly. “A small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.” In other words, the little things make a big difference. I like to think an invitation to play is like the unpredictable beauty of the butterfly effect. I never know exactly how it will “play” out. But it always seems to lead toward more light, sometimes in the most surprising places. And thus, I resolve to dance.