This past summer I was given the opportunity to spend a week largely in silence, at a retreat center in rural Pennsylvania. I sensed the week was what I needed after a particularly frenetic couple of months, but I was not really sure how time spent without speaking to other people would help. In the midst of the silence, I understood how fast I was living internally, and how an interior moving at the speed of highway 95 is not conducive to the kind of living and looking I desire. I emerged in place, and firmly so--to a degree I had not ever felt before. The greatest gift was a moment during a walk down the most remote of Pennsylvania backcountry roads, ever reminiscent of the kind of country I grew up in as a child (and have come to believe is the most beautiful soul-feeding country on the planet--at least for my soul). While walking I had the deep sense, nearly visual, of my life in parts--and for a moment all the pieces of that life appeared as they are, deeply--revealing precision and order and rightness. The pathos of life and living endemic to being human did not disappear, but perspective lit the whole view with, of all things, calmness.
I write about that week now because thankfully I feel the silence seeping into the rest of my life, even when I am moving and talking and, as I so often am, teaching. I understand, newly, how teaching drawing is not just a method by which techniques for convincingly portraying reality are transmitted, but rather, a chance to work with others in slow pursuit of stopping long enough to simply see what is in front of one's eyes. While a graduate student, I wrote "the world is stranger than we know" in a sketchbook. I don't remember where I found the phrase, but I loved it because my Pennsylvania-born eyes saw the words to be true of the calla lilies growing behind the California apartment of my grad school years. Now I see that things/places/people/spaces don't need to be exotic to be singularly strange, notable and arresting. Things can merely be what they ARE--and simply seeing what is is strange enough.
A student brought me an extraordinary book of Ivan Albright paintings two days ago. At the start of the book is a foreward by Jean Dubuffet. He writes, There are few pictures as alarming as those of Albright. Because what they represent to us belongs not to our accustomed world. Or rather, and this is what baffles so utterly, we see in them objects that we easily discern to be those which surround us but which are nevertheless unknowable. Never have we suspected that these objects could be clothed with such an aspect. This strange aspect is so impressive and has such convincing authority that no possibility is left to us of doubting the fixed reality. It is the reality of our customary views of things that we are as soon called upon to question.