Posted by Peter Himmelman
Today is the fast of the 9th of Av. I’m not gonna explain it for you if you don’t know what it is - and why should you? Who goes around afflicting themselves over the destruction of an ancient temple these days? Twenty-five hours without food or water. This isn’t some hippie juice-fast where you can pack away 2000 calories chuggin pineapple juice with protein powder and kid yourself that you were actually getting anywhere near the affliction zone.
It’s not having any water, any fluids at all that’ll get you thinking about ruined temples. And it’s not just the temples we’re mourning. It’s the hacked-off arms in Rwanda, it’s the Holocaust, it’s every rape and every murder, it’s every time someone looks at a kid with contempt and ruins his chances of a happy life. That’s all it takes really, just one look that says, “My god son, you’re such a fu&%ing dumbshit, what a worthless thing you are.”
I don’t have the scientific proof of course, but it doesn’t take test tubes and pie charts to know how fragile we all are, how susceptible to shame our tender selves can be. I was so afraid of getting hit in the nut with one of those bombs that I hardly ever told the truth. I was so afraid of letting my parents and my teachers and my friends know that I was human. I was so afraid of running the risk of hearing some of that awful shit, that from the time I was in kindergarten I began playing the part of one smart, on the ball, on the go, always got the right answer, always got the charm, sick motherf^$ker. And it worked. Worked like a charm until it didn’t.
I can’t remember when it stopped working exactly. It didn’t just grind to a halt, it sort of slowed down gradually, almost imperceptibly. I was the guy who was always doling out advice with a kind of concerned look on my face that said, “yeah, I hear you man, I know why you’re goin through what your goin through, I feel you.”
See, I could do this thing where I could bring a man low while he and everyone else thought I was really building him back up. That’s how I cut my competition. If you’re creating the illusion of always being on top, you sure as hell don’t want your competition standing tall. This is one of the things in life you do very quietly, very secretly; especially when you’re putting up this front of imperviousness. You gotta work really smart in the bullshit department. When I felt my alpha dog status was bulletproof, I’d start offering the advice, the faux kindness. And they fell for it every time. They never felt me kicking them in the balls. The problem was I didn’t have on my hazmat suit. I was wearing my regular clothes and the stuff I was doing and saying soaked through to my own skin and made me a believer too. I had effectively succumbed to my own bullshit. And like I said, it worked for a while until it didn’t.
Now, the train’s stopped, the temple’s burned down and I don’t know which way to turn. I’m suddenly hanging on, suspended by a wire in a strange place, in a state of mind that’s as infertile as the Mojave. I ask myself, how long can you live in fear? How long can you live without food, without water? I guess that’s the point. Sometimes life puts you in a place where you can no longer trick yourself; a place that just heaves you out. Out in the street. Out in the cold.
They call that place exile and sometimes it’s not a punishment at all, sometimes it’s a blessing. It’s a hard thing to understand when you’re in pain, I know, but sometimes being banished from what’s comfortable is an answer to a prayer. Maybe not the answer you expected, but what is?
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July 25, 2012 | 2:09 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
A year ago I received a letter from a distraught man. He had every reason to be: his wife (“she really loves your music…”) was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was writing to me to ask if there was any chance I might send her a note of encouragement since she’d soon be undergoing treatment and would be too weak to attend my upcoming concert. Maybe it was a way of protecting myself, but my initial reaction to the letter was to ignore it and justify my doing so by adopting some mistaken belief that the bonds between an artist and his audience aren’t real, that there can’t possibly be an authentic connection.
But I read on. His letter was so raw and so emotional that I soon found myself in the very state of mind I go to when I do my best work. It’s a place we all know. For many of us it’s a rare but familiar place; a time of heightened receptivity, a suspension of our normal consciousness where we can sense the paradox of our insignificance and our enormity; our humility and our breathtaking fearlessness. For others of us, it became a place in our minds we lost touch with as we matured. Picasso once said: “When I was a child I painted like a master and all my adult life I’ve tried to paint as if I were a child.
As I continued to read, I felt this man’s attachment to his wife and his tremendous torment. I was moved and I reached out.
A year has passed and a couple weeks ago I met the two of them backstage before a performance in the Midwest. The woman was strikingly beautiful and at first she just stared in silence, but just as when I meet someone whose work I truly admire, I understood she wasn’t interested in –me. She didn’t care what I eat for breakfast or what kind of dog I own. What interested her was being near what she perceived as a conduit, or a bridge that allows human beings to channel creative energies from their source (however one defines that) and back into the world.
This bridge is a place of negation. It’s a point at which the ‘I’ of us must always give way to the ‘we’ of us. On this bridge, our left-brained, hard-wired conceptions of ourselves are suspended, creative ideas are given space to form, and then mysteriously, they’re broadcast to our conscious minds. This happens most often when we encounter something so emotionally riveting that we become able -if only for a short while- to stand outside of ourselves. It’s a state of consciousness where the sharp-featured identities we’ve manufactured for ourselves briefly step aside and permit our biases to melt away. It’s in this frame of mind that our preconceptions fade and our harsh judgments cease. This is the place where creativity flourishes best.
Back in the dressing room, I improvised a funny little song for the woman to break the silence between the three of us and she began crying. It was hard not to get emotional and despite my attempt at keeping the mood upbeat, it was impossible for any of us not to recognize the gravity of the situation.
Getting outside ourselves is the key to nurturing our creative souls. Being open to the stories and struggles of others helps us get the distance we need to embrace a perspective large enough to swallow our own.
July 18, 2012 | 8:34 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
Here’s a question from Melanie R. of Baltimore, Maryland:
“Dear Big Muse what’s the best way to actually finish something? I walk around with all these ideas for things I want to accomplish creatively but I can’t seem to see them through.”
Melanie, without knowing what you’re working on specifically, I’m going to take a guess and say that in general, your problem might be that you’re dreaming too broadly.
Notice I didn’t say that you’re dreaming too big. One never wants to limit the scope of their aspirations, at least not from the outset. What I mean by broadly is that ideas come into being just like starfish, poison mushrooms, and wildebeests:
They all start from very tiny pieces.
That is, they grow into complexity from microscopic parts. In the case of living organisms, I’m referring to individual cells - but even they can be broken down into smaller and smaller components: molecules, atoms, and quarks. But for now, let’s not go there -as a matter of fact Melanie, let’s never go there.
How does this relate to your problem? Here’s an example I often use from the world of songwriting which might help shed some light on what I mean.
Let’s say I want to write a song and I’m motivated by two factors, one of which will be helpful in terms of my finishing the song and one less so. See if you can tell which is the more effective motivation:
1. I have a desire to become FAMOUS! I want to become the greatest songwriter of all time.
2. I have a desire to write a song for my Mother for her 75th birthday party which will take place at my brother’s house in Minneapolis on Tuesday April 17 at three pm where there will be about thirty guests at the party and if I were to perform a song about my Mom there -a lovely song that captured her wonderful energy, her kindness, her beauty, and the love we all have for her, then I would feel special, my Mom would feel like a queen for a day, and I could bask in the love and the appreciation that everyone would have for me.
Sorry for the run-on sentence but do you see where I’m going? In the second motivation, I’ve begun to break down my desire to write a song into small pieces. Not quite cells or quarks, but small do-able pieces that will no doubt motivate and stimulate the completion of the task.
In the first motivation, the one where I want to be (FAMOUS!) there is a big dream, which as I said earlier, is a great thing and you need that impetus to fuel the overall cause. But without breaking the dream into specific components, the chance that a song - or anythng else- will actually emerge hovers around zero.
The specificity of need has to be identified.
Why are you doing whatever it is you want to do? When do you need it done? And perhaps, most importantly, for whom are you doing this? Who will benefit from its emergence in the world? If you can answer those questions you will be well on your way to “finishing things.”
July 10, 2012 | 6:00 pm
Posted by Peter Himmelman
The Ethics of Our Fathers, an ancient Jewish text, tells us there are four distinct types when it comes to anger:
Can you see yourself? The best of the bunch is number one. This person hardly ever gets angry and when she does, she’s easy to cheer up. At the bottom of the list is of course, the least desirable type. Easily annoyed and very difficult to assuage.
I’m number three. It takes a lot to make me angry. I pride myself on the fact that I only get steamin mad about once every three or four years. The bad part is that when I do get angry I go a bit nuts. Three years ago I got so enraged that I heaved a cedar picnic table across the width of our backyard. See if this little incident would have made you angry too:
I needed to rent a short-term apartment for our family and after the owner and I had agreed upon a price, we shook hands. Part of the agreement was that I’d need to move in the following Sunday. Our family worked like dogs to get our things packed, rent a van, contract some (non-refundable) movers and show up at the apartment -only to have the owner tell us he’d rented the place to someone else. They’d agreed to pay thirty bucks more a month.
That’s when I became a cartoon character - eyes bulging, hair on fire, and smoke billowing out both ears. After a fruitless phone conversation which ended with the apartment owner threatening to sue me for slander, I flung our picnic table with the same adrenalized strength a mother gets when lifting a minivan off her infant.
OK, that’s what happened in the distant past, now here’s me last week:
I drive to my favorite ethnic market and purchase two bags of cheese that I’d be using for some home-made pizza I was planning to make (yes, I make the dough and everything, - relax, it’s easier than you’d think.) I open the first bag and there’s a big wad of green mold at the top. The second bag didn’t have any visible mold but it smelled of decaying muskrat. No big deal I think to myself, the pizza can wait and I decide I’ll take the bags of rotten cheese back to the store in the morning.
I get there early and the guy at the register tells me he can’t do an exchange because I don’t have my receipt. My pulse rate goes up slightly.
“Well, can you please get the manager because I spend a fortune at this store and it would be incredibly stupid on your part not to do an exchange” I say.
The refrigerated foods guy comes to the register and says the same thing. “No receipt, no exchange.” Pulse rate goes up further.
“Guys,” I say. “I understand that you’re obviously parroting the owner’s general rule but in this case intelligence dictates that you abandon dogmatic principle for a broader view. Namely, that you’ll be in better stead with the store owner—the guy that writes your checks—if you exchange the rotten cheese then you will be by losing my hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of business over this matter.”
Blank looks all around until the cashier says, “the owner just walked in.”
“Thank God” I say. And to the owner, “It seems we’ve got a little problem here with an exchange.”
He looks at me and says, “Do you have a receipt?” Now, there’s smoke -not a lot- but definitely some smoke, starting to leak out of my ears.
“Receipt?!” I say. “You gotta be kidding! All I want to do is exchange these moldy bags of cheese. I’m not trying to rip you off, I just want two new bags of cheese!”
The storeowner’s remarkably calm and it just pisses me off all the more. He says, “that’s our policy, how do I know where you bought this cheese and how you stored it? Maybe you left it outside for a week.”
“Oh my God” I shout. “You’ve got to be fu*&ing kidding (smoke, much more smoke from the ears) “Why on earth would I be driving around town with two bags of moldering cheese? How could I possibly profit from a scam like this? What, I’m the guy making millions by doing exchanges on cheese, two bags at a time? Do you have any idea how much money I spend in this place?”
The more I become enraged the calmer the storeowner seems be getting. “I’m not calling you a liar,” he keeps saying and of course, that just makes me crazier.
Finally he says, “If your wife comes in and buys as much as you say she does, than she can come find me and if I see that her cart is full, I’ll exchange one of the bags of cheese.”
I slam the two bags I’d been holding on the counter.
“Now you couldn’t get me to shop here for all the money in the world. You’re totally insane!” I shout as I head out to my car.
Back home I call the credit card company to see exactly how much we actually do spend at this store. A lot. Close to five grand a year. I begin writing a letter that’ll make this loser see just what a total moron he is, just what an insane person he is, and how he sacrificed five thousand dollars for two bags of rotten cheese. Fortunately, I have the presence of mind to forward the letter to my son who’s studying out east. He tells me it’s a great thing to be able to vent, but under no circumstances should I send the letter.
“You sound like a raving maniac” he says.
It’s true, I do. And what’s worse, I really like shopping at that store. Who’s the loser now?
Slow to anger, slow to pacify indeed.
Is that condition of mine,—slow to pacify—an indelible part of who I am, of how I must behave?
I don’t think it needs to be. I’d like to be like a number one once in awhile: slow to anger, quick to pacify, and so I slowly begin to think in a way that’s totally unique for me. I start to consider MY part in bringing about the situation.
The first thing I do is to develop a sense of empathy for the storeowner. Here’s my thought process:
I called him and I apologized.
I didn’t cast any blame on him – or on myself for that matter. I simply reiterated one through six on the list above. I found the results astounding. Here’s what he said:
“You have no idea how happy this makes me. No one understands the kinds of pressure I’m under with people running into my store every minute to exchange things they didn’t even buy here. I would have gladly exchanged your cheese but it wouldn’t have been possible to do so in public. Please,” he said, “come back to my store, I’ll exchange the cheese, we’ll sit and have tea and some cake.”
I had been freed from the burden of my anger. I was happy because I was able to express myself and I was relieved that he was grateful. I can go back to shopping at that store again and best, I feel like a tiny tear in the fabric of my own, and possibly the world’s humanity, has been restored. I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like making pizza tonight.