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August 15, 2012


I struggle with this all the time; thank you for putting all of this into words. Part of me feels that when I focus purely on the creative, I'm "letting down" the causes I believe in; part of me knows that when I immerse too much in the political, the ensuing despair deadens something in me. It's a tough line to tread.

Rachel, thanks for saying how you feel. I think we share a similar outlook. It's important to speak out, especially when we have a position from which to do that. What I find deadening to my spirit is the size of certain problems, and their apparent intractability. We need to find place to "enter" and confront the issues that are small enough so that we feel we are either taking small steps forward, or that allow us to stand in solidarity and witness with those who suffer, without killing off our own hope and creative spirit - I think that's our responsibility as stewards of our own souls. And that's certainly possible through the arts, through writing, through blogging as well as through spirit-led group actions. We each have to find our own way, and I agree, it's very hard.

I've never felt I had much of a gift for -- or opening into -- political action, so I haven't ever felt much pull that way. I do feel, though, that there's a certain defiance, in the world as now constituted, in devoting some of your life to things other than getting and spending. For me the writing of poetry -- and even more, the reading of living (and ipso facto unknown) poets, comes under that heading. Anything carefully, slowly, and individually made, with an eye to making it as good as possible, is a bit of a wall against the tide of commercialism & commodification.

Lovely post!

Thanks, Dale. And of course I agree completely!

"Too much immersion in politics kills my creativity. It's pretty much either/or." Yes, I felt this too vis-a-vis activism in the field of conservation. I still keep a hand in it, but pulled back from almost full-time involvement around the time I got into blogging in early 2004, telling myself, as you have, that it makes most sense to put one's efforts where one's true gifts lie.

Thanks for sharing those thoughts. Reading your lines made me remember an essay i read a while ago, which was about creativity and the world in difficult times. i just looked for it, and found a paragraph i copied back then: it's from John Crowley, "Practicing the Arts of Peace":

"My work and the world: I was asked by somebody back at the time of the invasion of Iraq how we could all just go on writing or funny little stories, especially we fantasists, and I said that in my opinion what we were doing was practicing the arts of peace.
What we want is a world in which funny fantastical stories are possible and are valued. In which there is nothing so dreadful or urgent that it causes the writing of such things to stop or be stopped.
Worlds where the arts of peace can't be practiced are wounded worlds, and that's why we have to go on practicing those arts, so that our worlds don't die."

This morning, I happened across a yoga-related youtube video on "energy vampires". the speaker seemed a bit new-age and idealistic to me, but I picked up on the core message that either arguing with, or just letting someone negative talk at you, will drain your own energy down. That when you speak truth - speak from your heart - then energy will grow. I could not agree more and I think that, in our time, we are being swamped with a huge amount of negativity and somehow we have to learn to soar above that or we will be pulled down into the ooze. So many times, I come back to the lessons that I have learned trying to carry on now that I am alone. There is a lot of negative stuff that happens when your partner dies, but you have to find a way to turn that into something positive. If you don't, you are in danger of becoming stuck going in circles. To break free requires going forward without fear of the future believing in your own instincts, continuing to be creative and willing to explore and share new ideas. Artists (and everyone, for hat matter) are probably wasting a lot of potential energy when the spend too much time focussing on all the vile stuff that exists in this world. I sometimes think that we would do better to just do and end run and try to fix something - guerrilla like - rather than fight to have someone else fix that thing - and then move on. We need more creative solutions to problems and less fighting over who did what and how such and such happened. I feel sort of sick of the mechanics of how the world got so messed up. Now, I would rather see positive people putting energy into that which is good - be it writing, art, music, making wells with good water for people who have nothing but polluted water, building housing for those without a home. I don't really care how people want to spend their energy, but it should be flowing in a positive rather than a negative direction.

Having never been much of an activist, I do keep informed, sometimes too much so, sign online petitions and vote thoughtfully but often feel helpless and angry. Your eloquent words on the importance of the artist just keeping on working in spite of little or no sales gives me added courage to keep on with it and thus tone down some of those negative feelings. Helping our family in their struggles is another role that does seem to continue in these tough times as well. Thank you for your wise words, Beth!

Bev, thanks. You've had to cope with something far harder than I ever have. I do know that whenever I've had setbacks and reversals in my life, trying to turn them into something positive, even an opportunity, has been the way to get through. We get so paralyzed by fear otherwise, but it's also completely understandable that we do.

Thank you for adding your perspective, Marja-Leena! Because I don't have kids, I didn't think about that priority on many, even most, people's attention.

The thing about current American politics is that it's turned simply into a fight for "power." It's not so much what is right for our society but rather who can pay the biggest price for the benefit. The only ones who truly benefit are the politicians themselves and I don't believe they can be trusted as far as you can throw them. They may have the best intentions when they enter the political arena but soon thereafter, they are completed corrupted by the system. Every single one of them becomes corrupted because of greed or fear of loss of power. Be glad you didn't become one of them. Turn your attention to your art and concentrate your efforts there for a while.

Difficult indeed, and affirming to hear what you say. I've been trying to formulate something about going from activism to quietism, about cultivating your garden and whether this is simply turning one's back on harder things that need to be done, about displacing myself to another country so I am removed from difficult choices; but it mostly came out sounding bitter and negative and guilt ridden!

I suppose I resort to saying I try to do no harm, or as little as possible; I try to leave things better than I found them. I try not to dump on others. I try not to slide into ignorance and complacency. Yes, making things helps, it helps me and maybe, hopefully, sometimes cheers other people up. Now I'd better go and do some of it... when I've put away the shopping!

Hear hear! Beth, I wholly agree. And the beautiful photos of your brushes are a perfect complement to your words. Gorgeous still-life.

How well cared-for your brushes! So many of mine are down to their last hairs.

We can all contribute time, effort, or money to causes we believe in - maybe not all three and maybe not all the time. Stepping back into the world of beautiful art and gardens strikes me as escapist.

If those of us who say we care don't speak up, who will?

et, I certainly didn't mean I wasn't going to speak out, or continue to give time, money, and effort. I was talking about priorities at this point in my life. When I was being most active politically, it was nearly a full-time job: 30-40 hours per week. I did that in addition to my regular work for many years.That's not a choice I want to make anymore, at age 60, but there's a big range between 0 and 40 hours per week.

et, I think probably most people here would and do put time, money and effort into causes which matter - I support various development and environmental organisations financially and occasionally practically which are not directly party political but whose actions have a political impact. However, there exists the question of how best to go about this; part of the the frustration and disappointment that so many here are expressing stems from disillusionment with the existing political framework as a place to do it, and also sometimes a degree of uncertainty as to what exactly the good causes are and how to further them.

Also, there is a question of what people are suited to; many very active, political people, talkative people 'out there' in public life are there because, for better or worse, they love it and it makes them feel good. They can tell themselves it's purely for the good of humanity and berate the rest of us for not being like them but the fact is it suits them. I don't hold with the idea that they are all corrupt and self-serving, that's a lazy assumption which is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling, but political activity is not necessarily all noble or even useful, and some of us are simply not cut out for it.

Words like 'escapist' are not really very helpful; they are pejorative and judgemental without carrying any clear meaning. I have frequent doubts about my own comparative withdrawal from the world, which now means I no longer have a vote anywhere, though I pay taxes. Like most, though, I do what I can. It seems pointless, though, to waste any more time disabling myself with guilt for not being a different kind of person and telling myself that the things I love and can do are useless, escapist and self-indulgent, when doing them better might actually make the world a slightly better place and myself a more useful person.

Rant over, and I doubt the person it's addressed to will even come back and read it, but thanks Beth for accommodating it!

My sentiments exactly. It sounds a bit of a swiz to confine myself to three words but they say exactly what I mean!

Hi Lucy,
Why do you think I wouldn't come back and read?

I used the word "escapist" because I see it happening all around me. I am prone to it, too.
If we have the means, building a comfortable, "safe" world for ourselves and our kin is a very human thing to do. It feels good and is comforting.

My concern is that it is so comfortable that we forget about the very real perils of our times.

Et, thanks for returning. Yes, I know, and I'm inclined often to agree, you do actually give voice to my own fears and self-rebuke, and have perhaps helped me to think through them more clearly.

It's not forgetting about the perils which is the problem for me, but in fact being swamped by them and giving in to a kind of paralysing despair, so that I'm doing nothing either useful or beautiful. As I say, the least I can do is not slide into ignorance or complacency, but while the wrongs seem very clear, solutions can seem much less so. I hesitate to say it, but sometimes inaction might do less harm than wrong action? But I think that to some extent just looking after ourselves, sensibly, not greedily and selfishly, and cultivating the things we can do well can make us more useful and positively effective people in the world, though perhaps that's just copping out...

Anyway, I probably don't deserve any break for my quietist and escapist apathy but it sounds like Beth does for a lifetime of commitment!

Et and Lucy, thanks for continuing the conversation. I think I was too defensive in my own reply, which just goes to show that figuring all this out is still hard for me too! And don't beat yourself up, Lucy. We need to know ourselves and what we're suited for. I agree with you, too, that a lot of people who think they're doing good are actually doing harm. My minister-grandfather used to say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." I think he meant that we should think hard before we act to "help".

I could just borrow Dale's words and be done with a response that felt particular to me... The act of making something beautiful and whole is a strike against all that is deadening in the way the world works.

1 Corinthians said it a long time ago in talking about the gifts of the Spirit: that we are one, that we each have gifts for use and that they are not the same. One is a finger, one an eye; one is hands, one a leg. Together we embody a culture and push it forward into the future. It's all right to follow your gifts; it's not wrong in some way. Of course we don't ignore demands on our charity or our hands, but that doesn't mean that we are being frivolous or wasteful when we pursue art.

Whatever I have to say that could be defined as political I have said through novels or poems in a more effective and powerful way than if I wrote essays--whatever I might have to say that might be better off in an essay I leave to others who feel the call to write essays and not poems or stories.

Thank you for articulating this so well. It helps to hear that it's important to keep creating.

I couldn't agree more. To create, to love, and to enjoy life, really enjoy it, is as radical if not more so than any other type of activism.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.