Key to Success

Key to Success

2018.09.26

The Creative Soul

 

I remember applying for a job once to teach the general population about better parenting.  The interview went along as I had expected.  I was asked about my training, my work experience, and then I was asked how I would market the program.  As I sought to quickly gather my thoughts to respond, the interviewer smiled and handed me three blank sheets of paper.  “Here is some paper.  Develop a marketing outline and then draw up a brochure.  We’ll be back.”  Never has a blank piece of paper – the semblance of nothing – seemed so threatening.

 

Albert Einstein felt the key to his success was imagination:  “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”  Most writers know the terror of facing a blank piece of paper but so do others in the artistic community, whether it is a blank canvas, a blank piece of sheet music, an empty stage, or a simple block of stone or clay.  Is it possible to teach ourselves how to be creative or is it simply something we are born with, that thing that keeps our mental state from staying focused on the mundane?

 

Research shows that children encouraged by their parents to participate in pretend games and role playing tend to have higher levels of fantasy as adults.  Are they the only ones who can become great artists?  Is it possible to train creativity or encourage a creative imagination?  The answer to those questions depends on what you are calling creativity but basically, the answer is yes. 

 

Research seems to imply that our environment can boost creativity and, like many old adages say, hard work can also pay off in becoming more creative.  Behavior is also contagious and when we engage with creative content or watch someone else be highly creative, it can rub off on us and we ourselves increase our own creativity.

 

Research has shown that there are two phases to creative thinking – divergent thinking and convergent thinking.  Divergent thinking is the ability to think of a wide variety of options or ideas, all connected to a main problem or topic.  Such thinking is supported by intuitive thinking, a fast, automatic mental response to a problem or dilemma.  Convergent thinking then helps us evaluate those ideas or options for their usefulness, feasibility, etc.  This involves analytical thinking, a deliberate, focused thought process which ultimately and hopefully allows us to select the correct option or idea to employ.

 

We all use creativity every day in solving routine problems.  For instance, you are making a vegetable soup out of left-overs and suddenly your sibling drops in to surprise everyone.  You can add some broth or water to the soup to have more servings.  This is a creative response.  OR you get all dressed up for a fall day in a nice button-down cardigan, shirt, and slacks when someone on your commute bumps into you, spilling your coffee on your shirt.  You stop by the restroom on the way to your office and remove your shirt, buttoning up the cardigan and wearing it as a sweater top instead of just a jacket.  This is another creative solution.

 

Not all creative imagination needs to compose an opera or paint the ceiling of a grand cathedral.  Research indicates that the first thing we can do in becoming a grand master of creative output is to immerse ourselves in creative experiences.  Exposure to the arts and putting out some effort are important first steps to creative success.  Sadly, it is less about having a muse and more about putting in the effort.  Famed scientist Louis Pasteur knew the answer when he said “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

 

We have spoken about this before but I think it bears repeating.  Anyone can be an artist.  Not everyone can be a Michelangelo or Andrew Lloyd Webber but we all have the potential to be an artist.  The process is vital in becoming creative and should be emphasized rather than just concentrating on the end result – the goal of a masterpiece.  The journey you travel in becoming creative is far more important – the play, the practice, the exposure; these are all the keys to successful creativity and enjoying the creative life.

 

My Favorite Canvas

My Favorite Canvas

2018.09.20-21

The Creative Soul

 

There is a very good likelihood that you have never heard of Suffolk, VA, even though it is, by land area, the largest city in the Commonwealth (state) of Virginia and Fourteenth largest in the country.  Earlier this week the local paper features an article by Alex Perry which read:  “Families, children and others with an artistic itch will have the opportunity to spend an evening with a paintbrush in downtown Suffolk this weekend.  Suffolk Tourism is partnering with Paint Me Purple Studios for “A Night Under the Stars” paint party at 7 p.m. Friday at the Suffolk Visitor Center, 524 N. Main St. Space is limited and advance reservations are required on Thursday at the latest, with about 20 spots left as of Tuesday, according to Visitor Center Supervisor Kevin Sary.  Participants will use provided painting materials to do their own rendition of “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh with careful instruction by Kim Ellis, owner of Paint Me Purple Studios. They’ll also enjoy some tasty star-themed treats during the 90 or so minutes they’ll have to complete their paintings under the night sky.”

 

I do not live in Suffolk and have only briefly passed through there once in my life.  However, I would love to be there this weekend.  Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” is one of my all-time favorite paintings.  Van Gogh is a perfect answer to those who say “I cannot be creative” or “I have no talent” because he defied all the odds and left the world with a beautiful portfolio of creativity.  The following is from the MoMA website on Van Gogh.

 

Vincent van Gogh: Emotion, Vision, and A Singular Style

“Mention Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) and one of the first things likely to come to many people’s minds is the fact that he cut off his own ear. This stark act, committed in 1888, marked the beginning of the depression that would plague him until the end of his life. But to know van Gogh is to get past the caricature of the tortured, misunderstood artist and to become acquainted instead with the hardworking, deeply religious, and difficult man. Van Gogh found his place in art and produced emotional, visually arresting paintings over the course of a career that lasted only a decade.

“Largely self-taught, van Gogh produced more than 2,000 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, and sketches, which became in demand only after his death. He also wrote scores of letters, especially to his brother Theo, in which he worked out his thoughts about art. “Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better,” he wrote in 1874. “Painters understand nature and love it, and teach us to see.”

“It was nature, and the people living closely to it, that first stirred van Gogh’s artistic inclinations. In this he was not alone. Landscapes remained a popular subject in late-nineteenth-century art. Driven in part by their dissatisfaction with the modern city, many artists sought out places resembling earthly paradises, where they could observe nature firsthand, feeding its psychological and spiritual resonances into their work. Van Gogh was particularly taken with the peasants he saw working the countryside; his early compositions featured portraits of Dutch peasants and rural landscapes, rendered in dark, moody tones.

“In 1886, van Gogh moved to Paris, where he encountered the works of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, and the Pointillist compositions of Georges Seurat. Inspired by these artists’ harmonious matching of colors, shorter brushstrokes, and liberal use of paint, he brightened his own palette and loosened his brushwork, emphasizing the physical application of paint on the canvas. The style he developed in Paris and carried through to the end of his life became known as Post-Impressionism, a term encompassing works made by artists unified by their interest in expressing their emotional and psychological responses to the world through bold colors and expressive, often symbolic images. In a letter to his sister Willemien, touching upon the mind and temperament of artists, van Gogh once wrote that he was “very sensitive to color and its particular language, its effects of complementaries, contrasts, harmony.”

“By 1888, van Gogh had returned to the French countryside, where he would remain until his death. There, close once again to the peasants who had inspired him early on, he concentrated on painting landscapes, portraits (of himself and others), domestic interiors, and still lifes full of personal symbolism.

 

Observation and Imagination in The Starry Night (1889)

“This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise, with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big,” wrote van Gogh to his brother Theo, describing his inspiration for one of his best-known paintings, The Starry Night (1889).3 The window to which he refers was in the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy, in southern France, where he sought respite from his emotional suffering while continuing to make art.

“This mid-scale, oil-on-canvas painting is dominated by a moon- and star-filled night sky. It takes up three-quarters of the picture plane and appears turbulent, even agitated, with intensely swirling patterns that seem to roll across its surface like waves. It is pocked with bright orbs—including the crescent moon to the far right, and Venus, the morning star, to the left of center—surrounded by concentric circles of radiant white and yellow light.

“Beneath this expressive sky sits a hushed village of humble houses surrounding a church, whose steeple rises sharply above the undulating blue-black mountains in the background. A cypress tree sits at the foreground of this night scene. Flame-like, it reaches almost to the top edge of the canvas, serving as a visual link between land and sky. Considered symbolically, the cypress could be seen as a bridge between life, as represented by the earth, and death, as represented by the sky, commonly associated with heaven. Cypresses were also regarded as trees of the graveyard and mourning. “But the sight of the stars always makes me dream,” van Gogh once wrote. “Why, I say to myself, should the spots of light in the firmament be less accessible to us than the black spots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to go to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to go to a star.”

“The Starry Night is based on van Gogh’s direct observations as well as his imagination, memories, and emotions. The steeple of the church, for example, resembles those common in his native Holland, not in France. The whirling forms in the sky, on the other hand, match published astronomical observations of clouds of dust and gas known as nebulae. At once balanced and expressive, the composition is structured by his ordered placement of the cypress, steeple, and central nebulae, while his countless short brushstrokes and thickly applied paint set its surface in roiling motion. Such a combination of visual contrasts was generated by an artist who found beauty and interest in the night, which, for him, was “much more alive and richly colored than the day.”

 

It is reported that in a letter to his brother Theo, van Gogh wrote passionately about painting a scene as he experienced, imagined, and, ultimately, interpreted it, not as it was expected to be rendered. Comparing painting to playing music, he argued: “We painters are always asked to compose ourselves and to be nothing but composers. Very well – but in music it isn’t so; in music, a composer’s interpretation is something.”

 

Whatever you draw is a creation, just as whatever you play is music and whatever you write is either poetry or prose.  You have created something.  You engaged in a creative process and you were creative.  Your soul gained value from that.  Whether or not someone else decided it had value does not negate your creative efforts.  You were creative and your creative interpretation is, to quote Can Gogh, “something”. 

To Be Creative

To Be Creative

2018.09.07-08

 

Albert Einstein once credited his intelligence to his creative spirit.  What exactly do we mean when we say someone is creative?  Are they overly imaginative?  Do they think “outside the box”?  In an online journal, “The Journal of Effective Teaching”, Jose Gomez discussed the various connotations and definitions of the term “creativity”.  Designed to assist educators in developing a student’s creativity, Gomez’s abstract brings up some very interesting correlations between intelligence, divergent thinking, convergent thinking, reflective thinking, and the different ways we accept or reject creativity.

 

It is nearly impossible to find an all-inclusive definition of the word “creativity”.  New World Encyclopedia defines it as a process involving the generation of new ideas or concepts, or new associations between existing ideas or concepts, and their substantiation into a product that has novelty and originality. From a scientific point of view, the products of creative thought (sometimes referred to as divergent thought) are usually considered to have both “originality” and “appropriateness.”  Wikipedia states it more simply: Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.

 

We must also include the fact that creativity is considered differently based upon the situation or discipline in which it is found.  In education creativity is considered to be innovative while in business it is referred to as entrepreneurship.  In mathematics it is simply problem-solving but in music it is either performance or composition.  The World Conference on Higher Education proclaimed Creativity as “an innovative education approach” in their statement of Missions and Functions in Higher Education. 

 

In his article Gomez refers to the fact that the literature on creativity is sparse, but it is becoming apparent that there may be several kinds of creativity. Donald N. MacKinnon outlined three different kinds of creativity used as a basis for research at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research Laboratory (IPAR), Berkeley, California. The first is artistic creativity, which reflects the creator’s inner needs, perceptions and motivations. The second type is scientific and technological creativity, which deals with some problem of the environment and results in novel solutions but exhibits little of the inventor’s personality. The third type is hybrid creativity, found in such fields as architecture that exhibits both a novel problem solution and the personality of the creator.

 

In studying creativity, the IPAR group, along with most other research groups that have investigated this process, have assumed that all kinds of creativity share common characteristics, and these assumptions seem to be true. It appears that most creative persons are relatively uninterested in small details or facts for their own sake; that they are more concerned with meaning and implications. Creative people have considerable cognitive flexibility, communicate easily, are intellectually curious, and tend to let their impulses flow freely.

 

It was generally assumed that creativity and intelligence were closely related.  However, the incidence of highly creative individuals, such as Edison, Churchill and Einstein, who at some time experienced difficulty in school, led to a closer examination of the issue during the 1960s. One of the most widely publicized studies was done by Getzels and Jackson (1992), who produced evidence that creativity and intelligence were largely independent traits.  On the other hand, just a few years later Hasan and Butcher(1996) found creativity and intelligence so highly correlated that they were almost indistinguishable.  The subject remains controversial today.  Perhaps the most prevailing view today is that beyond a minimum level of intelligence necessary for mastery in a given field, additional intelligence offers no guarantee of a corresponding increase in creativity.  OF course, since most intelligence tests only test for convergent thinking, we may never really know the relationship between intelligence and creativity.  Usually, there is only one correct answer, and correctness is determined on the basis of logic, rules, or laws. However, even the best known creativity tests are somewhat invalid because of the subjective nature of the elements they measure and the lack of any predetermined right answer.

 

What exactly is convergent thinking?   Convergent thinking emphasizes reproduction of existing data and adaptation of old responses to new situations in a more or less logical manner while divergent thinking is characterized by flexibility and originality in the production of new ideas. Convergent thinking is characterized by the reproduction of known concepts and the adoption of known responses to new situations. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, involves fluency, flexibility, and originality, and is essentially concerned with production of large numbers of new ideas.

 

Perhaps Einstein, Churchill and others had difficulty in school because institutional classrooms seldom allow for flexibility or creative approaches.  The teacher gives a test and said test is graded based upon the answer key with only one set of choices for the correct answers.   An idea is creative when it brings a new insight to a given situation. The process of creativity includes the ability to change one’s approach to a problem, to produce ideas that are both relevant and unusual, to see beyond the immediate situation, and to redefine the problem or some aspect of it.  The standard test does not allow for a creative response.  In addition, there is the myth that to the truly creative and talented, their skill comes naturally, and the creative works they produce come with ease. However, the evidence shows that the creative experience only comes after considerable effort and time has been put into the creative work.

 

Reflective thinking and evaluation of thoughts are, as we mentioned yesterday in the two creative process models discussed, basic to the process of creativity.  Ideas are best when evaluated for the purpose of facilitating the problem-solving process at every step.  However, continuous evaluation limits the generation of ideas. A suspension of judgment enables one to further examine seemingly wild or impossible ideas.  Wrong ideas may be right in the final analysis. Emphasis shifts from the validity of a particular point to its usefulness in producing new arrangements or patterns.

 

Gomez lists basic attributes of the creative person but I think they could also be considered steps in the creative process.  They include originality, persistence, independence, involvement and detachment, deferment and immediacy, incubation, verification, discovery of problems, generation of alternatives, the challenging of basic assumptions, and minimizing labels and/or categories.

 

Gomez also lists strategies for encouraging creative thinking.  They include the most obvious – make a start.  He also lists taking notes as not only effective but also necessary for not only observing the world around you but also making note of various ideas as they come.  A surprising strategy involves making deadlines.  Deadlines are often considered the killer of a creative spirit but Gomez feels the creative soul should use them to do the necessary daily routines we all have more efficiently.  That in turn frees up more time for creativity and encourages the self-discipline needed in accomplishing goals.  To this end Gomez also advises to “fix a time and place” to lure one’s muse out.  While this may sound far-fetched it is very similar to the bedtime routines we employ to tell our brain it is time to turn off and go to sleep.  One cannot schedule a masterpiece of thought to happen, perhaps, but we can create an environment that encourages creative thought, relaxation and a safe environment for exploration of said creativity.

 

Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work sums it up best:  “If you have ideas but don’t act on them, you are imaginative but not creative.”  In their 1999 annual report the Hewlett Packard Company established their basic rules for a culture of creativity and innovation:  “Believe you can change the world.  Work quickly, keep the tools unlocked, work whenever.  Know when to work alone and when to work together.  Share – tools, ideas. Trust your colleagues.  No politics. No bureaucracy.  The customer defines a job well done.  Radical ideas are not bad ideas.  Invent different ways of working.  Make a contribution every day.  Believe that together we can do anything.  Invent.”

 

I firmly believe that when we throw the labels and criticism of the past away, anyone can develop their creative side.  Someday science will determine the genes that are creative and we will discover that we all have the ability to be creative if we will just take the time and have the courage to develop it. 

 

 

Huh…Now what?

Huh…Now what?

2018.09.03-04

The Creative Soul

 

We have all, as artists, been faced with the blank page syndrome.    There we are sitting in front of a blank page and realize we also have a blank brain.  Many of us admit to being creative and yet… that blank page seems to mock us.  How on earth will we ever start?  With courage few recognize we pick up the pen, brush, put our feet into position or pick up an instrument and then the panic sets in:  “Huh….Now what?”

 

Brussels professor Liana Gabora defines creativity as the cognitive process that produces new ideas or transforms old ideas into updated concepts.  Jacques Hadamard and Henri Poincare are two scientists who have contributed to the Creative Process Model in an attempt to explain how random thoughts become a creative solution.

 

Step One in Hadamard and Poincare’s Creative Process Model is entitled “Preparation”.  In this stage, a person becomes curious upon being given a problem.  Preparation may involve research, establishing goals, organizations of thoughts, or brainstorming ideas.  For me, preparation for writing something nonfiction often comes from coloring or painting.  Writing fiction, however, comes from doing fiber arts.  Music prepares me for dealing with unpleasant people and dance, dance reminds me I am alive and prepares me for another day.

 

Step Two is called “Incubation”.  Gabora explains that ideas are taken a step further than mere consideration or brainstorming.  The imagination begins to play a type of “What if?” game as thoughts are considered and sometimes rejected.  Many writers recommend to new writers to keep a file of their rejected prose, those phrases and sentences that you just love but do not fit in the current project.

 

Step Three often comes unexpectedly, no matter how great you are at keeping on a schedule or how positive you are that you know what will be the ending before you start the beginning.  “Illumination” is often an epiphany during which various ideas come together in a possible solution.  The clarification of this step leads to the next.

 

Step Four, the “Evaluation” is where the creative process becomes real.  Based upon in-depth thought, various options are considered and changes are not uncommon.  It is at this stage that collaboration occurs.  We often think that the creative process is a solitary one but every piece of art needs an audience.  After all, art is a dialogue, a communication of a moment, a sense, a feeling. 

 

The Fifth and final step is known as “implementation”.  Thoughts and ideas become reality and again, changes and new starts often occur.  I think it is at this step that many of us become the most frustrated and hyper-critical of ourselves.  We’ve made it through the other four steps only to accept defeat three steps before reaching the finish line.

 

Charlie Gilkey, noted teacher, author, and developer of the website ProductiveFlourishing.com uses a four-step method, omitting parts of the evaluation step mentioned above.  Gilkey is a firm believer that everyone is capable of creative thought and originality.  He feels people often short-circuit their creativity being impatient with the incubation process and by trying to make the preparation process a solo event.  He is a firm advocate of the need to balance creating, connecting, and consuming.

 

Both of these creative models are good but they omit two important steps, in my humble opinion.  The first is failure.  We fear failure but it is a necessary element in the creative process I believe.  Every creative person has bombed at some point.  Every writer has a full wastebasket (or trash/delete file) and often a file cabinet drawer of rejection slips.  Every artist has canvases that have been painted over.  Even musicians have that one measure they never got quite right on their instrument or the harmony that their composition never found. 

 

The second step not in these creative models is perseverance.  One is being creative whenever one is creating or making something uniquely theirs.  It may not be for the world’s acclaim but it still is creative even when we are the only audience.  The acclaim is nice but, as Gilkey states: “One of the chief goals of living the creative life is to do it for the long-term.  There’s a time and place for sprints, but without careful integration, sprints often make your work incoherent and deplete you at the same time.”

 

This brings us back to perseverance.  The great thing about the creative process is that it is all correct.  Even when we do not like what we have done, we have still created something.  Everything we create is … created.  It may not be great or maybe even good enough but it is ours to own and we did create it.  Sylvia Plath once said “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”  I hope you have embarked upon Sunday’s challenge and created something.  It does not have to be spectacular.  It just needs to be created.

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

2018.08.09

Literature and Life

 

In 2014, writing for “The Guardian” Alison Flood reported that a survey reveals that 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of go-it-alone writers made less than $1,000 a year.  Over nine thousand writers took part in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, presented at the 2014 Digital Book World conference.   The survey group was composed of beginning writers to highly acclaimed, well-published authors and then divided the 9,210 respondents into four camps: aspiring, self-published only, traditionally-published only, and hybrid (both self-published and traditionally-published).  More than 65% of those who filled out the survey described themselves as aspiring authors, with 18% self-published, 8% traditionally-published and 6% saying they were pursuing hybrid careers.  Just over 77% of self-published writers acknowledged they made $1,000 or less a year, with “a startlingly high 53.9% of traditionally-published authors, and 43.6% of hybrid authors, reporting their earnings are below the same threshold.  A tiny proportion – 0.7% of self-published writers, 1.3% of traditionally-published, and 5.7% of hybrid writers – reported making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. The profile of the typical author in the sample was ‘a commercial fiction writer who might also write non-fiction and who had a project in the works that might soon be ready to publish’,” according to Flood’s report.

 

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that this is one of my favorite quotes about writing: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”  It was said by today’s featured author, Jane Austen.   Jane Austen is a world- renowned English author who completed just six works during her time.  Few have such a small portfolio that have managed to command the legion of fans around the world that Jane Austen has. Her timeless stories have been turned into a plethora of movies, television shows, and modern adaptations in addition to being translated into multiple languages to cross cultural boundaries. Today she remains as popular as ever and is revered as much as any literary figure in the history of the English language.

 

During her lifetime Austen wrote approximately 3,000 letters but only about 160 survive.[6] Many of the letters were written to Austen’s older sister Cassandra, who in 1843 burned the greater part of them and cut pieces out of those she kept. Ostensibly Cassandra destroyed or censored her sister’s letters to prevent their falling into the hands of relatives and ensuring that “younger nieces did not read any of Jane Austen’s sometimes acid or forthright comments on neighbors or family members”.  Cassandra believed that in the interest of tact and Jane’s penchant for forthrightness, these details should be destroyed.   Ironically it is the humor and wit of Austen’s characters that have made her writings so popular and timeless.

 

Austen lived a relatively short life, even for the time period and yet, she read many books, volumes of poetry, and plays.  Some of her favorites included “The Corsair” by Lord Byron and “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Anne Radcliffe.  Her all-time favorite was reportedly said to have been “Sir Charles Grandison” by Samuel Richardson.  Austen endeavored to incorporate Richardson’s epistolary style in her own writing, but found the flexibility of narrative more conducive to her realism, a realism in which each conversation and gesture carries a weight of significance. This narrative style utilized free indirect speech – she was the first English novelist to do so extensively – through which she had the ability to present a character’s thoughts directly to the reader and yet still retain narrative control. The style allowed her to vary discourse between the narrator’s voice and values and those of the story’s characters.  Jane Austen is considered one of the best authors to have used syntax and tone in the presentation of not only the characters but also the plot and storyline progression.

 

Critic Robert Polhemus once said “To appreciate the drama and achievement of [Jane] Austen, we need to realize how deep was her passion for both reverence and ridicule … and her comic imagination reveals both the harmonies and the telling contradictions of her mind and vision as she tries to reconcile her satirical bias with her sense of the good.”  Austen herself proclaimed:  “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!  How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! … but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.”

 

 

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

2018.08.08

Literature and Life

 

“I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”  This was not an easy lesson for Marguerite Annie Johnson to learn.  A child raised in part by her grandmother, raped by a boyfriend of her mother’s, she was traumatically mute for five years.  Her brother called her “Mya sister”, and that was the basis for her pen name “Maya”.  Angelou credits a teacher and friend of her family, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, with helping her speak again. Flowers introduced her to authors such as Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, Douglas Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson, authors who would affect her life and career, as well as black female artists like Frances Harper, Anne Spencer, and Jessie Fauset.

 

Maya Angelou would be a dancer, a singer, and San Francisco’s first black female street car driver before settling in as the noted and acclaimed author that we know and love today.  She would go on to become only the second poet (and first black female) ever to read at a presidential inauguration.  When Maya Angelou wrote and recited “On the Pulse of Morning”, she was already well known as a writer and poet. She had written five of the seven of her series of autobiographies, including the first and most highly acclaimed, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  African-American literature scholar Mary Jane Lupton describes the poem:  “On the Pulse of Morning” is an autobiographical poem, one that emerges from her conflicts as an American; her experiences as traveler; her achievements in public speaking and acting; and her wisdom, gleaned from years of self-exploration”.  Angelou herself considered the poem good but not great. 

 

“On the Pulse of Morning” was full of contemporary references, including toxic waste and pollution. Angelou’s poem was influenced by the African-American oral tradition of spirituals, by poets such as James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, and by modern African poets and folk artists such as Kwesi Brew and Efua Sutherland, which also influenced her autobiographies.  Si it might surprise you that Angelou held that her favorite author was the one that most influenced her as a child – Louise May Alcott.  “When I read Alcott, I knew that these girls she was talking about were all white.  But they were nice girls and I understood them.  I felt like I was almost there with them in their living room and their kitchen.”

 

The BBC had an article regarding Maya Angelou and I think it illustrates the impact an author can have.  The article listed fourteen people that were influenced by Angelou.  “American icon Maya Angelou was a celebrated writer, poet, activist, singer, actress and speaker. During her long and varied career she worked as a journalist in Africa, toured the world as an opera singer, authored the international bestseller I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, worked alongside Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and recited one of her poems at a US presidential inauguration. But more than that, Maya’s life, work and wisdom inspired some of today’s most famous names to achieve great things too.”  Those listed included Nelson Mandela, Tupac Shakur, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Bill Clinton (at whose presidential election she spoke), Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Barack Obama, Rochard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, and Chris Rock.

 

“She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace”, Oprah Winfrey once said of Maya Angelou.  Controversy did follow Maya Angelou but nothing illustrates the unifying goals of her writing more than these remarks from President Barack Obama.  Although Angelou supported Hillary Clinton in the race to be the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 2008, she became a strong advocate for Obama during his time as US President. He awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. When she died, Obama described her as an inspiration to all Americans. “A childhood of suffering and abuse actually drove her to stop speaking,” he said, “but the voice she found helped generations of Americans find their rainbow amidst the clouds, and inspired the rest of us to be our best selves.” 

 

Inspired by the writing of a girl from another time and of a different race, Maya Angelou herself overcame the unimaginably horrible to do unimaginably great things.  She herself said quite simply:  “We are more alike than unalike.”  Hear her reading her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”:  https://youtu.be/59xGmHzxtZ4

Seeing and Believing

Seeing and Believing

2018.7.2

Pentecost 2018

 

Recently in the city of Huntsville, Alabama, over one hundred people came together to assist in the rescue of a deaf/blind puppy who had fallen into a hole fifty feet below the earth.  The hole, thought to be the remnants of an old cistern, is located on the side of a mountain, one of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  The tunneling of the hole was not straight down, making the rescue very difficult.  The area to the west of the puppy’s entrapment is full of more mountains, complete with canyons and caves.  To the west about forty miles away is the home of today’s featured empowered women, Helen Keller.

 

Born on June 27th just fifteen years after the end of the War Between the States in northwest Alabama, Helen Keller contracted meningitis at the age of eighteen months.  The disease left over both blind and deaf, a condition seldom encountered by the country physicians treating her.  The Keller family had the means, however, to seek further assistance and Helen was seen by several experts in the field.  Most offered the family little hope until Helen attended the Perkins Institute and met Annie Sullivan, the teacher who would become her mentor and friend for life.

 

Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind person to earn a BA degree in the USA and went on to travel the world, speaking and living her message of inspiration.  “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” 

 

Helen Keller never shied away from the realities of her being but rather sought to use them as a ladder for gaining strength and abilities.  “What I’m looking for is not out there, it is in me.”  That one simple sentence is a great lesson for all of us.  Too often we seek happiness in material possessions or other people.  The reality is that happiness begins within and then spreads outward.  When we find happiness within ourselves, then we share it and it grows. 

 

Simran Khurana wrote of Keller:  “Although Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing at an early age, she lived a long and productive life as an author and activist. She was a pacifist during World War I and a socialist, an advocate for women’s rights and a member of the fledgling American Civil Liberties Union. Helen Keller traveled to 35 countries during her lifetime to support the rights of the blind.”

All too often, especially in times like these, we only see pessimism.  “Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”  Interesting that most of us see light every day but it takes the words of a blind woman to help us truly see the light that will lead us to tomorrow and a brighter future.  “It is for us to pray not for tasks equal to our powers, but for powers equal to our tasks, to go forward with a great desire forever beating at the door of our hearts as we travel toward our distant goal.”

 

The life of Helen Keller has been written and produced into plays and movies several times over.  A simple touch of another hand was the key to unlocking the world for her.  That one fact is a testament to the power of human touch and the need we all have for relationships.  One day her teacher Annie Sullivan put Helen’s hand under a water pump and then finger spelled into her hand the word water.  By applying touch within context, Helen Keller became alive to the world around her. 

 

“Once I knew only darkness and stillness. My life was without past or future. But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness and my heart leaped to the rapture of living.”  We all have something to offer another.  It is when we step out of our comfort zone and reach out that we are able to build bridges and relationships that enable us all to move forward towards better living and a brighter, empowered tomorrow.