Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What's in a Name

I shared Love's Freeway with a new friend last week by way of a thank you card I sent to her. I had chosen one which bore this image of a magnolia pod, a photograph I took last November in Norfolk (VA) Botanical Garden. I thought it would suit her, and sure enough, when we met up at an event a few days later, she let me know how much she enjoyed it.

"You are talented," she praised, and although I appreciated the compliment and let her know so, I didn't know quite what to do with it.

"Am I?" I said, and shrugged. Then I think I said something like "If you say so."

My stumbling was not rooted in modesty--false or otherwise--or in self effacement. I only knew that what she'd said didn't sound right somehow to me. She looked a little puzzled or jangled by my response: fair enough. An explanation was due, but I wasn't sure I could come up with one just then. I did try, but didn't get very far. We agreed to sort it out in a future conversation, as we were about to part ways for the evening.

The following day, I looked up "talent" in the dictionary. "A special natural ability or aptitude," read one of the definitions. "Yes, then," I thought, "I guess she's right." Apparently the word had collected other connotations for me over time. By that definition, to be talented is to be gifted--gifted with a capacity, versus trained or schooled or practiced to the point of skillfulness.

Clearly this didn't satisfy me, however, because I kept pondering the subject, in the background, over the subsequent days. "Is it that I am talented," I considered at some point, "or is it simply that I am open? Is there any difference between talent and openness?" I wondered.

I think there is not. If I have talent, I want to say it's because I have (re)learned to be open. I want to say that anyone of us has such "talent" available to us. I want to say that it's Love's talent, not my talent. I want to say that these images are very much not created by me so much as they are created through me.

Case in point: "Puff."

I was going through the ever- growing portfolio the other day, and my eyes rested upon this image in particular for its simple understated yet unmistakable beauty. This was a parenthetical shot. I had been walking toward the weeping pear trees, I think, when this little speck of early spring (mid-January: a very early spring indeed!) gave me pause. It was the kind of picture I take just to see if it will come out. Just to see if the camera will focus to such a small, close point. This cherry "puff," you see, was smaller than a green pea. It was the only open bud of any sort on all the trees in my view. So I snapped it. And this was the result. Something beautiful was captured, and so something--another thing--of beauty was made. Well I think it's beautiful, anyway. The lustre of each of the filaments, the vertical columns of light and dark, the puff almostly perfectly centered within the buff colored column: I couldn't have accomplished this if I'd tried.

That's the other thing: I didn't try. I don't try. I did not compose this shot. I want to say I don't compose any shot, but I hesitate. I wonder if it's true, if it's possible. I think it is true, and possible. How it is is this: it feels less like I use the camera, than it feels the camera uses me. Do I capture the image then, or does the image capture me?

My entire writing life has produced many complete works out of this same posture, a posture of surrender, I'll call it. It is an entirely willing posture--a willingness to be overtaken. I open, and something pure comes through.

I remember a personal essay I wrote years ago called Haircuts. It is one of the earliest, standout examples for me of "I couldn't have written this if I'd tried." I distinctly remember saying that of this piece of writing. The piece happened because I had a sore shoulder: I was distracted because it hurt. My writing partner had launched us with a completely unrelated (and at this point, irrelevent) topic but, thanks to my training, I followed the "distraction," the pain in my shoulder, which in no time flat turned centerpiece, became the point. That present-day discomfort led my mind surely and quickly back to the perils and terrors of childhood haircuts on the kitchen stool at the hands of my not-necessarily-sober-at-the-time father.

I listen, and I follow. That's what I know to do, and that's what I do best. What results is not my way, but Love's way--and happily so. As for the question of talent, I respectfully and humbly recall a Dharma talk at a nearby Zen Center a good fifteen years ago by the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn. Someone in the room had asked (challenged?) him about his title. His response was characteristically terse:

"You make me Zen Master."

His point? He was what he was without the name. I'm recalling now that a similar exchange was had with Jesus. During the Sanhedrin Trial, he was asked by the high priests and elders, "Are you the Son of God?" His reply, "You say that I am," got him condemned for blasphemy and turned over to Pontius Pilate, accused of sedition.

Ah, naming. It certainly can cause some trouble, huh?

So as to the question of talent, it appears I have come full circle. Am I talented?

If you say so.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The notion of talent, 'what is talent?', 'who is talented?' brings one face to face with some of the limitations of language, but especially the limitations of the "me" mind. In the act of generation or creation, artists of all sorts, and also athletes speak in terms that suggest that inspiration or talent if you will, shines forth only when there is no "me" interfering with the flow of the pen or the brush or the speech or the way to the basket with a flying slam dunk.

I know a sculptor from Nigeria whose medium is tree trunks. When he is about to sculpt the trunk, he sits quietly with the hulk of wood in front of him and "asks the tree what it wants." Aaron Copland had this to say:
'Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness or sub-consciousness- I wouldn't know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.'

Countless athletes speak of being "in the zone", a state of being when the body and mind function in synchrony, when the basket, the field, the baseball look large, when connection with one's teammates is instant and precise, when there is no "me" interefering with what is naturally to be done. Whatever is natural we often call talent, magic, effortless flow etc. Maybe it is simply access to what is. Access, a momentary or sustained pause of self-concern, of self-reference, when those thoughts slow down and what has been there all along emerges in awareness and can be ridden(?)/rode(?) like a wave.

At the arts school where I teach we are not supposed to use the word talent with our students or their parents. I think this word is often misunderstood and these misunderstandings fluorish in environments such as arts schools and as well in the culture at large. These misunderstandings create a situation where those of us who teach become false authorities on talent and where young artists feel that they "have" talent or they don't. I (one hesitates to use the word "I" here) hold the view that talent is available to us all, as is charisma, mastery, creative inspiration. Talent has us, we don't have it. It comes through when one sees through "me/mine/I" enough to let IT come through. Even to say this is merely to point, that is all teachers can do, good teachers, all they can do is point and get out of the way.

11:22 AM  

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