Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm.

My brain and body experience a fairly negative reaction to the way our world is structured today around media.  It's too easy for me to spend hours in front of a laptop, television, or both at the same time.  It's much easier to choose to do this rather than to spend the hours socializing in real life, listening to music while cooking good food, reading, or engaging in creative pursuits.  The fact that new kitty Ygritte wants to sit on my lap and/or cuddle with me 24/7 doesn't make this any easier, nor does the cold weather that finally hit Austin this week.  As a result of constant television, Facebook, Twitter, other social media, reading blogs, email, playing games online...my brain isn't quiet.  It's always jumping from one thought to another, one idea to another, without spending any time contemplating, meditating, or enjoying.

I don't know how I stumbled upon Wallace Steven's poem "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm," but it made me long for this exact feeling:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there. 

I can imagine the times I felt this way, sitting on my back deck and reading a good book, or practicing yoga first thing in the morning as the sun comes up.  Watching the snow fall in a street lamp on Christmas Eve back in New Hampshire.  Traveling out of town with Travis for the weekend.  Getting a really good massage, the kind that's deep and therapeutic but not insanely painful.  I miss it.

Visual representation of not my mind.

Experiencing James Turrell's art is a great cure for this.  In September, I dragged Travis and Will to Houston for a night so that we could see/experience the retrospective at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.  I've been really interested in his work for a long time, unsurprising I guess for a lighting designer, but had never experienced anything of his first hand.  They might have thought I was crazy with how insistent I was that we go to the exhibit before it closed, but once they saw what Turrell was about, they understood.  I think it's nearly impossible to sit in silent awe in the middle of one of his immersive environments and not feel your mind empty and calm while your perception of space is distorted.  The only drawback to the experience was that there were too many people - I really wanted to experience these pieces in solitude, not feeling rushed to let the next person in or distracted by what they were saying.
Also we had Indian food on top of pizza.
Travis and I got to experience some of that in October, when the new Turrell Skyspace at UT Austin opened to the public.  We were among the first to see it, and of our group the first to arrive.  Before anyone else got there I was able to lie on my back in the middle of the floor and look at the sky through the opening.  Once people arrived and the "show" began (basically a sequence of lighting shifts that begin at sunset and play for maybe an hour), we sat on benches surrounding the walls.  For over an hour.  I don't know that anyone who was there got bored and left - conversation and silence alternated among the group, one man slept through part of it, several people took out their phones but only to take pictures of the beautiful colors and sky above us, not to make calls, check email or do anything else that we are so accustomed to doing every five minutes.  It was an hour of meditation, even if we weren't always quiet as a group.  The thing I remember most from the experience was the occasional bird or plane flying overhead - something about viewing only a piece of the sky through a small opening made me so much more aware of those occurrences.  When we left, I felt noise from my brain and tension in my body had faded.

The Turrell skyspace at UT

I need to seek out more experiences like this.  And it doesn't have to be quiet, hour long experiences of installation art - anything that keeps me away from my phone, my laptop, or the television for an hour or more will do.  Sunday I met with local filmmaker/animation artist Jeanne Stern for a one-on-one handmade animation class.  For three hours, I played with basic stop motion animation, taking photos, importing them into Final Cut and watching what I had created with very simple tools and some actual time of concentration and quiet.  The cold weather had made it so that I didn't want to leave the house earlier that day, but once I was there, working and playing, I relaxed.  When I left I could feel how different I was.  I will probably be experimenting a lot with some of these kinds of animation in the next few months, especially while brainstorming and working on projections for "Sila."

I still find that I struggle with my use of media.  I frequently feel the urge to leave Facebook entirely, just because experiencing the daily updates of a couple hundred people creates so much more noise in my head.  I try to be very conscious of my use of my iPhone, I turn it off when in a class, at work, in meetings, in tech, or out with friends or with Travis.  It's not easy to step away from it and not constantly want to check my email or text messages.  But it's worth it.  One afternoon walking on campus to my car I counted the number of people (mostly students) who passed by me while staring at their phones.  I try to remind myself that I don't want to look like that, and also that I would probably just trip and fall if I tried.
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