Saturday, June 11, 2016

No Reading for a Week: Reflection #9 on Perspective-Taking

So already, the period of reading deprivation began last Sunday. No reading for a week. It's a Week #4 mandate of the creativity course that Julia Cameron lays out in The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Its purpose is to help non-creating artists clear away whatever clutter, dross, and detritus might be blocking the paths between our external, daily selves and our more elusive inner selves, which, unique to each of us but divine in origin and nature,* are the wellsprings of our creativity. Cameron's theory is that the absence of others' words and messages will create space in our hearts and minds for the messages from the deepest parts of ourselves to surface, take hold, and become the stuff of our art. At the same time that Cameron discourages consumption of others' words, she encourages active attention to our dreams and to all visual images that present themselves to our minds' eyes while we're awake

Now that I've explained all of that, I can honestly say that my first reaction to Cameron's edict was disbelief. Reading bad? Reading deprivation as a tool for creative progress? Really? Maybe Cameron wasn't as smart as I'd thought.

But I knew she was smart, so my next thought was that maybe I didn't need to give up reading because I understood why I should be giving it up. Maybe I was the one person who could simulate the effects of deprivation without actually depriving myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of wanting to be the exception. And with my Teaching for Understanding background, I am definitely someone who understands that knowing about ice skating isn't the same as being able to skate. You just have to get out on the ice and skate-and be ready not to give up when you fall down, too.

But just at that moment of almost-surrender to no reading, I became enraged. Why shouldn't I enjoy the newspaper over morning coffee? The chapter of the novel I was kind of enjoying right before I went to sleep? And what about the daily Writer's Almanac poem--what could be wrong with reading a poem a day and entering the world it artfully created for just a few minutes? And the well-written articles in all those substantive magazines that arrive weekly or monthly? Wasn't a reading life a good thing, a healthy thing? A responsible thing for a thinking person?

Then I calmed myself down, became reasonable. Cameron was asking for just one week of no reading--not a lifetime withdrawal. But instead of feeling reassured by that reminder, I panicked. I felt myself spiraling down, feeling desperate.Preparing for a colonoscopy felt infinitely more palatable and less overwhelming than giving up reading for a week. I realized I was afraid of the vacuum no reading would create, of the feelings of emptiness and listlessness that would accompany being untethered from--from what it was I wasn't sure.

Not that I hadn't thought periodically that I was spending too much time reading articles recommended to me more often by slick online algorithms than by friends and colleagues. While the anxious part of me couldn't imagine what I'd do with the time I was usually reading--and worried about hurting those who really wanted me to read something that mattered to them or that they thought I'd really like, the compulsive part of me heaved a sigh of relief: a whole week off from trying to keep up with my reading!

Finally, I gave in to Cameron's command, though not with enthusiasm. What else was there to do? Was I spiraling up or down, I wondered. Before my mind's eye floated the spiral, now become a spiraling shell.** A chambered nautilus. Spaces next to spaces. Rooms next to rooms. Flowing back with it came all those I'd dreams since childhood of airy houses with rooms abutting rooms, all with windows on inner walls that permitted movement of air, sight beyond walls, connection despite separation. "In my Father's house there are many mansions." That line from one of the gospels--I'd sung it in one of my choirs long ago--came hurtling back to me as it did every time I dreamed of these vast, airy dwellings.

Maybe reading deprivation was already working, even though I hadn't yet finished reading the chapter that was telling me not to read. And the truth of the matter was that I'd already had a powerful wordless experience early in the day that had made me happy to be sitting with nothing to read. 

It had happened in the sanctuary of the newly dedicated home of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Blue Hills in Milton, Massachusetts right before the funeral service for a lovely, dear cousin of mine, an older woman who had succumbed quite unexpectedly to a mysterious infection just three days earlier. Like so many of the people in attendance, I was concerned about my cousin's children and grandchildren, who were no doubt still reeling from the shock of her sudden death. Still I found myself comforted in that sanctuary where the only sounds were the muffled rustlings of those of us who wanted to be present taking our seats.

G-d was there. I felt Him in all of us sitting quietly in a seating formation that allowed us to see one another as we shared this very sad moment, felt Him in early June's lush green leaves so plainly visible through the sanctuary's many large windows, felt Him in the ark and the beautifully decorated parochet  (פרוכת) that covered it.***

The parochet spoke to me the moment I saw it. It featured a foreground scrim of silhouetted tree trunks, with some Hebrew and English text in two opposite corners. At first glance, the bright oranges and golds seemed to dominate the textile backdrop against which the scrim was set. But further looking made me appreciate that the muted beiges, blues, and browns counterbalanced the brighter colors. The backdrop's variegated fabric pieces layered, joined, overlapped, and mixed to suggest leaves in all seasons, sky and stars, and, to my mind's eye, the burning bush. The more I looked, the more I saw--and the more I felt everything was there. The radiant and shining was also the hidden and shadowed. Later on, when we all recited the twenty-third psalm and the Mourner's Kaddish--prayers which many Jews know by heart and don't read--that parochet kept reminding me of G-d: immediate and remote, listening, present, comforting, always.

Since Sunday, I've been doing my best not to read. It's been a difficult and good time. I eat my breakfast watching the sunshine on the leaves of my expanding Christmas cactus while I listen to the twittering of birds that I guess has been there all spring, but which I haven't heard above the voice of the NPR reporter to whom I usually listen. I go to bed earlier, having neither watched a television show in which multiple guns were fired nor read a somewhat forgettable chapter before dozing off. Meanwhile, in a special green bag not far from the radio that I don't have on nearly so often, I'm saving all the newspapers I haven't read over breakfast, just in case there's something I want to look at when reading deprivation week is over. Similarly, on my computer, I've made a special folder where I've put all those links to articles that I may or may not read next week when reading is allowed. The only twitter in my life this week has been from those birds I mentioned a few sentences back.

Have I made art? No. Not yet. Have I made contact with my inner self? I don't know yet. But I understand a few things better than I did before and can talk about them better.

"Twine" by Scott Ketcham****
The other day I was talking about reading deprivation week with my husband Scott, and we began talking about perspectives and inner voices. I commented to Scott how interesting and ironic it seemed to me that I was deliberately orchestrating a week that was about not encountering other perspectives when very recently, I had written a blog post about the importance of other perspectives. When Scott commented that sometimes it's much more important to know one's own perspective than to know other people's, I had two responses. 
  • The first was that hearing other people's perspectives often helped me know my own: in being alert to my reactions to what others were saying and thinking, I often was able to hone in on what I really felt and thought
  • The second was that I didn't think seeking one's inner voice was the same as seeking one's perspective, even though what one found in finding one's inner voice would importantly shape one's perspective, whether perspective was being understood as viewpoint or vantage point.
In saying these things to Scott, I realized I was understanding "inner self" or "inner voice" as essence, as the expression of the deepest, elemental part of our individual selves that has its own kind of authority because it is both unique to each of us and divine in its origins and yearnings. By its nature and purpose, it compels us to extend ourselves, reach, and create.

But just because our inner voices, the expressions of our inner selves, have authority doesn't mean they're easy to hear. Over the course of a lifetime spent among others with their own recognized and unrecognized plans for us and their own ideas about who we really are and really should be, our inner selves can get buried, twisted, reshaped, pushed to the side, told to sing in the choir when they should sing and even write a new kind of solo. They may become like cats that, confronted with circumstances that disrespect their basic needs, hide under the bed or in some place that we never discover--and don't come out, coaxed or uncoaxed, until they perceive the threat to them is gone. Our inner selves often don't have it easy: while some people form an underground railroad to help them journey to the freedom and expression to which they're entitled, others are watching and waiting to pounce on them, discredit them--to send them back under the bed forever--or worse. Too many people want our inner selves to be a reflection of their perspectives.

After two more days of wrestling with all of this--and, of course, not being able to read anything that might help me do that--I am now thinking that inner selves can be considered perspectives because they are both crafted by us and given to us. They're not just the messages we want to send, the stories we want to tell, the pictures we want to paint, the quartets we want to compose, the songs we yearn to sing so they speak to others' hearts: they're also the force that motivates us to express ourselves in whatever form is right for us--and that we experience and recognize as not just coming from within us, but coming from beyond us and through us, however we define or name that force, and however we use it in the world.


There's irony here. Through our reading and social selves, we encounter the world in one way. But through our inner selves, we encounter the world a whole other way. Bringing together those two kinds of encounters with the world seems important. In some of the reading I've done about Chasidic Judaism--which I can't go look at right now--I recall stories of people with pronounced spiritual capacity, but also strong devotion to their families and neighbors, who left the town for a while in order to tend to their relationships with G-d, then came back to their communities. Inner self and outer self both mattered because community and spirit needed each other. Maybe we need to spiral in and spiral out in order to spiral up and create. This week of no reading has offered its own version of retreat from the world for me, but it's felt more spiritual than artistic. Maybe for me there's no dividing those two realms.

Quilt by Gail Willett******
Before this week of no reading is up, I'm hoping for a dream about a chambered nautilus in which the walls separating the chambers have windows that create contact, continuities, and a sense of freedom and space. But what I'm happiest about tonight, though, is that I have this chore to do that involves a needle and thread: I have to fix the hem of a shirt I often wear in the summertime. I've been thinking about handiwork--G-d's, that of the textile artist who embroidered and quilted the parochet for the ark in the Milton synagogue, that of the textile artist **** who made the quilted wall-hanging that I bought just recently. I definitely want to spend some time thinking about how and what to resume reading next week. But mostly, I think it's time to sew already!

* Cameron goes to great lengths to explain this creative source as divine and spiritual. It's understood as G-d within us by many, including me, but Cameron invites her read readers to name and/or describe it as they must and/or wish.
** The chambered nautilus. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2016, from 
*** Photos of the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Shalom of the Blue Hills in Milton are screen shot versions of photos on their web site: Temma Gentles is the artist who created the parochet I discuss above. More of her work can be seen on her web site:
**** More of Scott Ketcham's artwork can be seen at 
***** Screen shot of "Fibonacci Spiral in Nature" photographed by Luciano Azevedo 
****** Gail Willett and Poppy Milner are friends of mine who are also the creators of NGUO Artwork: