I’m back in Taos. It’s February and as I slow-walked from Mabel Dodge this afternoon, I scuffed through snow still lying on the ground. I’ve paid my seven dollars to gain entry to the Harwood Museum but all I will visit today is you. I feel at home in this octagonal room. The four yellow wood benches clustered under the skylight in the center; simple in their symmetry. The horizontal golden hardwood planks that run across the floor soothe and ground your work. I am, as ever, stunned by the seven linen canvases that surround me.
I am sitting in my usual place on the floor leaned against the white wall next to the absent eighth wall that forms the canopied entrance. I am wearing my faded black cotton pants and shirt. I don’t think you’ve seen me in anything but black. Few people have. I have been doing sitting practice in the zendo at Mabel’s for many hours today. I feel still and wide and ready for you.
As I look out at your paintings, these incredible 5’ X 5’ canvasses of pale blue and white, I am both deeply content and anguished. I won’t be back to visit for awhile – probably not until December. It is a difficult good bye because I have been coming here every three months for a year. I’ve gotten used to these trips to the Harwood. Like a trip to a favourite church or synagogue where you can sit forever in some form of prayer or communion. Silent. Unmoving. This room is as familiar to me as the zendo in my own home. This is my sixth visit and I am still awed to sit here.
It has been three years since that first November afternoon when I walked into this room, felt my lungs contract and my body hit the floor as my knees buckled. Gasping and wide eyed I looked around the room, overcome with emotion. I crawled over to this spot against the wall and carefully gazed out while steadying my shaking body. I have never had a painter’s work strike me so deeply. Each time I come here to sit and write, I can feel myself preparing to walk again into this room. Each time you hold a mirror up to me. Like an aunt who sees her niece once a year and registers how much she’s grown in a way that parents can’t. I see myself and where my writing is during each visit here. With each trip to Taos, this room is my Writer’s barometer.
I don’t want to leave Taos. I don’t want to head home. I have let my life get fuzzy. Cluttered up. Too much. Too full. When I get back to Ottawa, I am going to clear out some of the piles to make room. I am not sure what I am making room for but I will do it anyway. I want to live cleanly like you. Clear. Crisp. No distractions. I want to live directly. Single-pointed. Nothing extra.
Agnes, is there anything you want to tell me?
Ordinary Happiness, crop of Agnes Martin painting, Ordinary Happiness, Harwood Museum, Taos, New Mexico, July 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.
You can do it.
Don’t be so hard on yourself and be ruthless too. I threw out all my early paintings and I never regretted it. I hadn’t found my form. I needed to clear everything out. Some art is going to have to die in your book in order to bring clarity. Don’t be afraid to get rid of stuff.
Don’t be afraid to move to smaller canvases.
Don’t make excuses.
Do what you need to do.
Not everyone will love your art. Some people don’t like mine. They just see stripes. Oh, and by the way, they are just stripes. Don’t make them such a big deal.
They’re No Big Deal and they’re a Very Big Deal.
Just like how you wrote the two sides of your aspiration on the altar in the zendo this week. On one side of your folded piece of paper: No Big Deal. On the other side: Very Big Deal. You got it right. It is always both.
Joanne, blue is a happy colour. Now I know that makes you want to cry because you’re not very good at being happy yet. You’ll get better. All these things you already have:
These are not just the names of the seven paintings. These things are present in your life. Right now. Blue is an ordinary, happy colour.
Ordinary Happiness is the kind of happiness I’m talking to you about. The wild kind of happiness comes and goes. It rolls in and out like a storm. Ordinary Happiness has staying power.
You have kept coming to visit me all these years in your travels to Taos; you have sat and written in this room of rounded edges and light in the middle. You can go now. I’m inside you. You don’t have to wonder about when you’ll be back to visit. You can visit anytime. Even in the middle of teaching. I am not separate from you.
Joanne, I want to speak directly to your search for something bigger. You have been troubled about what you call your “lack of faith.” I know that you want to rest in something bigger than you, trust something bigger than you and be held by something bigger than you. I think that’s good. It is good to be open and available to wider sources. But know this: You’re the one who has to get up and go to your desk each day. Trusting in something bigger than you does not bring you to your writing. You do. That bigger thing might meet you once you’re sitting there but it is does not provide the motivation or the propulsion. It meets you. You need to be ready. Like when you’re settled into the belly of your writing and Big Mind is flowing out of you so clearly, effortlessly, not seeking anything while your hand moves across the page for hours. You can trust that.
Did you hear me?
You can trust that.
Is that outside of you?
Or inside of you?
Is that that bigger than you?
Or just you?
It doesn’t matter. That’s not your concern. What matters is that you write. What matters is that you show up and wait to see what shows up to meet you.
I once sat still every day for three months waiting for an inspiration to arrive. Three months. Every day I waited. Still. Silent. I didn’t know if it would come or not. I didn’t have faith that it would come or not. It was my job to sit and wait. It came and I painted again. But I might not have. And that’s not the point – whether I ended up painting again or not – the point is that I knew what my job was. So: I did it.
It doesn’t have to do with faith, Joanne. It has to do with knowing that you’re a Writer. That’s your job. To show up and write. You get inspired. You use words to express it. I got an inspiration. I painted. You write, as truly as possible, to capture that inspiration. I painted to do the same.
Not in a tight way. But in a true way.
There’s math involved. And calculations. And measurements. And elegance. And simplicity. In the form and in the math. It isn’t all soft and mushy. There’s discipline and rigour and study and figuring it out but it is held in a soft hand. Clear. Steady.
I led a disciplined life, some say, like a Zen monk. I don’t know about all of that. I didn’t need much. None of us do. My paintings sold for more than a half a million dollars each. You are surrounded by $3.5 million dollars worth of art. Isn’t that something? How can Lovely Life be worth that much? Yet, should it be worth $20 million or $150 million or $50 bucks for the canvas?
That was not my job so I don’t know anything about those things. I tried to capture inspiration. Life is filled with beauty. Can you see it? Can you touch the beauty in your own life?
You are living too full up right now. Don’t despair. You can change it. One step. Then another. Sometimes I had too much too. It’s okay. Just start changing it each day. It won’t take long.
Pull out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind to remember why you chose this path.
I never stopped painting because I never stopped receiving inspiration. You will never stop writing and listening to music. You and music do have a special bond. It serves you well. And you hear well. Keep listening.
Spend more time in silence.
Walk more. While you can.
And don’t worry so much. It will all go fine because “fine” includes everything – all the stuff we call good or bad. It’s just stuff. It is being human. That’s all. You get to be a human so you get to have the stuff that human beings call good or bad. Don’t worry. You’ll get all the stuff that humans are supposed to get. That’s our true nature.
Let it come. Receive it. And let it pass. Don’t cling to it. The happiness or the sadness. Just notice the inspiration. Both inspire. That’s all.
There is just the living of a life and knowing that is what you are doing. A living of a life. So pay attention.
Top of mountain.
Middle of mountain.
Bottom of mountain.
Doesn’t matter. No need to decide.
The mountain will find you.
Take good care of yourself,
About Agnes Martin, Joanne says: She was Canadian born in Maklin, Saskatchewan on March 22, 1912 and died in December 2004 at the age of 92 in Taos, New Mexico. She lived most of her last decades in Taos painting (or waiting for inspiration) until the end; she was dedicated to capturing the beauty in life.
Agnes said, ‘My paintings are about quiet happiness like the lightness of the morning…I look in my mind and I see composition.’ It is her simple clarity that left such an impression on me. I think that you have to have a really clean relationship with The Mind to paint the way she did. I want to write that way.
About this piece, Joanne says: I was compelled to write a good-bye letter to Agnes that day in the Harwood at the end of a year long Writing Intensive. I asked her if she had anything to tell me. I thought that the response would be to sit in silence for awhile. I was surprised when I immediately drew a line on the page and my pen kept moving as the letter from Agnes emerged. It was calm and clear. I guess there were a few things she wanted me to know. I got out of the way and wrote until she was done. It came and went so easily. I slow-walked back to the zendo at Mabel’s that afternoon and read it aloud during our Reading Group. I was quite shocked. I still am.
About Joanne: Joanne just returned from an August trip to Taos where she got to surprise Agnes with another visit. Kevin Moul stumbled upon Joanne sitting in her usual place on the floor writing and took the photos of her there.
Besides sitting for hours on the floor of an art gallery channelling Agnes, Joanne is the founder of an Integral Coaching® Training School in Ottawa, Canada with her partner and beloved wife, Laura. You can read some of her Perspectives and Articles in the Resources section of their web site at Integral Coaching Canada. She is ruthlessly working on her first book while trying to write more in coffee shops rather than pubs where her libation of choice is a Guinness. She is Irish after all.
-posted on red Ravine, Monday, August 27th, 2007