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Sand dune hut on Amrum island (Feb2010)

I just spent an hour reading through the past several months of my good friend Gretzky´s blog and commenting. I miss her so much, and have been thinking a lot about how hard it is to find those people who make you feel alive and creative. The kind of people who are just good through and through and who you can respect and who don´t just take the easy choice of being cynical about life.

These last weeks, I felt as though I have never in my life lived in a place with so many “free thinkers” of every ilk—artists, musicians, writers, people living in a so-called alternative lifestyle—who are nonetheless the most uncreative, unimaginative people I have ever met. How is it, I have asked myself, that it´s so hard to find someone with true imagination?

And then I wondered if it´s me myself who feels unimaginative, and that perhaps I´m projecting that on to others around me. Which might also be the case.

Cynicism requires no imagination. It is easy. And completely devoid of life.

I miss Gretzky. I miss my other amazing friends at home, who were always challenging me to think outside of mysef, and to believe in a hopeful way of living. Berlin has never felt to me like a place where hope lives and breathes. How much darkness can happen in a place before the life actually leaves it and before it stops being sacred?

Do you believe that places can hold memory, and become dead? I think I might. I have so much trouble finding any spot in this city that feels spiritual in a positive sense. Everything else seems static, and interesting at best (but not alive).

But it may also be friends and relationships that bring life to a place. The rootedness of feeling like you belong to other people can tie you to your location. And so many of the people I meet don´t trust other people, or are cynical about one another and about life, or are afraid. That´s not to say that I haven´t met a few people whose relationships I value and who I greatly respect. But more often than not, I meet with folks who choose an easy way of looking at life, a way that doesn`t seem life-giving or hopeful or colorful.

What can I do to avoid becoming grey and static myself? How to find those relationships that bring color and goodness into life?

Someone emailed me this blog, We are what we do, and another one called 365 things you can do, which is basically a lot of creative ideas of things to do, in the same vein as Miranda July´s Learning to Love You More project.

When I want to feel alive, I try to do the things I most love, which include:

  • going outdoors into the forest or by the sea
  • if that´s not possible, then going for a walk or a bike ride
  • playing piano (or the ukulele)
  • writing letters to friends and family
  • cooking
  • reading a favorite book or a new book
  • sitting somewhere in the sun
  • spending time with people I love
  • working somehow in a garden or on a project where I use my hands

What kinds of things do you do when you want to be more creative?

Andrew Wyeth's paintings always evoke melancholy

This morning I read through the New York Times weekend magazine, as I often do on Saturday or Sunday mornings. They have excellent longer articles and essays, well written and thought provoking.

This weekend they had an article called Depression’s Upside, outlining a recent study by psychologists who were trying to figure out the evolutionary purpose of depression–an illness that, for all intents and purposes, seems anti-evolutionary. Since people with depression seem to exhibit behaviors that endanger rather than perpetuate the species (they have decreased appetite, less interest in sex and social engagements). Depressed people also tend to ruminate endlessly (to ruminate is to analyze over and over the same details of the same problem), which is usually seen as a complete waste of mental energy, and often has the effect that people get stuck in a pattern, unable to move on from their depressive state.

The two scientists didn’t want to attribute depression to an evolutionary accident. Because depression is so prevalent in modern culture, as they eloquently state: “[…] the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness.”

The study looked at what could be cognitive upsides of depression, and in particular at these “ruminative tendencies.” The scientists found that there is a correlation to increased cognitive activity in the area just behind the forehead (the left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex or VLPFC) in people who are depressed. This increased activity actually corresponds to higher levels of awareness, attentiveness and better analytical focus. Depressed people, according to this study, are able to solve complex problems and make better decisions than non-depressed people. “[…] negative moods lead to better decisions in complex situations.”

What these scientists deem the “analytic-rumination hypothesis” looks at the sunny side of darkness. Accordingly, my anti-social tendencies can actually keep me from being distracted by the outside world, allowing me to focus on my problems as well as my pursuits. They site Darwin as an example, who suffered all his life from severe bouts of depression and never believed that he would amount to anything.

What I find interesting is their question “Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity?” To quote further:

Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, “one of the most important qualities is persistence.” Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right. […] Successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

Good news for those of us who frequently suffer from depression?

Up In the Studio by Andrew Wyeth

I have had one or another forms of depression since 1999, sometimes it has been much more severe than others, and very often it’s tied to a significant life change or the death of a loved one (both of which the scientists in the study say is often a cause for depression). And I have found that these periods can be alternately incredibly fruitful on a creative level as well as incredibly debilitating.

The decreased interest in social interactions, while putting me into an introspective (and thus often very creative) mood, can also lead to a feeling of extreme isolation, that dead-ends in an almost vegetable state (=can’t get out of bed, can’t do anything). I work best in solitude, and I find that I can handle, and actually prefer, much more solitude than many of my friends and acquaintances seem to prefer. But when that solitude affects my ability to function on a simple maintenance level (i.e. not eating, not sleeping, etc.), this is where creative productivity ceases and destructive behaviors set in. So it’s a two-edged sword.

What I also find interesting from this article is the concept of uninterrupted focus on complex analytic ideas in people with depressive tendencies. Again, speaking from my own experience, I find that this is very often the case with my own thinking. It is often in the summer time, when the weather is beautiful and I am feeling happy, that I have the hardest time being creative and writing or drawing or learning new music. Probably because I find so many (good) reasons to be distracted. Whereas when I’m very moody, I have so many roiling emotions and acute, almost painful sensory intake that I have to put them into some kind of creative expression or I feel like I will explode. At times like this, I can sit down and work without distraction for days, focusing, solving problems, churning out page after page of work. Even if I’m miserable.

Andrew Wyeth house

This heightened attention to sensory information is probably what creates so many writers out of depressed people, and I found that point in the article quite important. To write well, one first has to see, is the old adage. Show, don’t tell, is another angle on the same point. You don’t simply write that something is “beautiful.” This doesn’t reach out and grab the reader–this doesn’t draw them into the world that you are creating. To do this, you have to describe it in such a way that the reader can see it, smell it, watch the liquid way that it moves, taste the substance, almost put it between their finger tips, feel the emotion of the moment in its urgency and infinite possibilities–and in that way, they will know that you (the writer) think that it’s beautiful. To be able to do that well, one must be acutely aware of small details which, according to this study, one has a higher chance of being if one is depressed.

Though I have many questions about how relevant this theory is for non-event-related depressions, or depressions that are so painful that a person can’t do anything, and though I don’t want to romanticize depression (nor, I think, do the scientists of that study), I found it to be a refreshing look at an illness that many in modern culture have stigmatized. We want so often to be rid of our sadness. Sadness, anger, disinterestedness—these negative emotions and states are too often dismissed or repressed as being unacceptable.

On this topic, I read a brilliant essay called “Anger and the Gentle Life” (scroll down to see the chapter of this topic) in a book called Awakening the Heart: East/West Approaches to Psychotherapy and the Healing Relationships. (Recommended to me by my wonderful Seattle buddy Jason). It showed me a new way of approaching so-called negative feelings, and allowing them a space to ruminate and work themselves out.

And that should be one eventual goal of rumination, in my opinion—to work things out. To analyze and divide something over and over again in order for it to make sense so you can move on to the next bit. Getting stuck—endlessly dividing—may only leave you with countless tiny bits of nothing. Like a human shredder of thoughts.

Now, on to another day of avoiding other people and working on my melancholy creative pursuits. Here are some other images that I love that also have this wonderful feeling, perhaps also suggesting that their creators knew that mood as well:

Andrew Wyeth "Helga"

Andrew Wyeth "Fisherman"

Andrew Wyeth "Wind from the Sea"

Edward Hopper "Hotel Room"

Edvard Munch

cape town, america

I want to pull a bucket over my head and keep it there until the winter is over. To walk the streets spilling barrels of hot white tea that melts the layers of grey ice. Shrink down real small and squirm into a toaster and just sit there between the slats for six weeks.

There is nothing more difficult than no sun, except perhaps no sun and your closest friends thousands of miles and nine hours time-difference away. And missing the salt-sea smell and fish and the smell of fresh mountain trees and alpine lakes. And the ease of your own language, and for once in this whole long dreary winter feeling like something other than an outsider in someone else’s country.

A friend wrote me today and said it sounds like I’m really enjoying my life here across the pond. But I’m not. I’m wishing I had a bucket on my head for the next six weeks, for goodness sakes.

You know you’re getting desperate when you find yourself on a website called “How to Draw a Bucket in 6 Easy Steps.”

George Clooney improves with age

Still, life in a foreign frozen hell isn’t without its quirky moments. Like the German obsession with George Clooney. I don’t understand it. I don’t know why. But Berlin at least can’t seem to get enough of him. Sometimes I wonder if George Clooney realizes this. That his face is on my little Berlin tram and they’re writing him all over the town?

Or the travel agency animated pixelated sign that I saw this evening while waiting at the tram stop. The travel agency was called Amerika Travel. The red pixels kept flashing all the places in Amerika that you could travel to, followed by the special price for the journey, plus a little picture of an airplane, just in case you were wondering about the mode of travel.

I stood for ten minutes at the tram stop, though the tram sign assured us that the tram was coming in two minutes. It was the ten-minute-est two minutes of my life.

In the meanwhile, the adjacent flashing travel sign offered me fares to New York, San Francisco, Los Vegas, Los Angeles, Washington (meaning D.C.), Chicago, Miami, Cape Town, and Atlanta.

I think somebody got their continents a little mixed up.

Berlin, Maryland

A simple google search back at home didn’t uncover any Cape Town, America, though there are at least fifteen Berlins in the United States alone (I don’t know how many are in Canada or the other Americas).

I’ve heard of an Oslo in Florida, a Prague in Oklahoma, a Cologne in Minnesota and a Paris in Tennessee.

But Cape Town is in South Africa.

Africa is a completely different continent. Which, among other things, has much more sunshine than we do here at the moment, in this town called Berlin (Germany) that loves George Clooney and needs sidewalks melting with white tea and where I can’t find a bucket to put over my head because I can’t remember the German word for bucket or how to politely ask directions for the human-sized toaster aisle.

Können Sie mir bitte sagen, wo ich einen Eimer als Winter Kopfschütz sowie eine Trommel Schneeschmelzenden Weißen Tee umgeben von einem Menschlichem-Körperlichem Brotröster in der Nähe von Kappstadt Amerika finden kann?

Sometimes I feel like no one understands me here.

mushroom goals

My new year’s resolution for 2010 involves, among other things, learning to identify and find mushrooms in the forests of Europe. To that end, I found this guide online:

http://www.rogersmushrooms.com/gallery/visualkey.asp

sexy naked blue savage hippy

So by now you’ve read my title, and know that this is going to criticize the recent film Avatar. What you should also know is that it might also spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen it and still wants to be bedazzled by it’s juicy bursting eye-smacking wonders. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Now, on to the criticizing and the spoiling.

First of all, I want to say that what I should have done was to go into the movie with a big bag of extra buttery popcorn, a jumbo coke and some Jujubes akin to what I do when I go to see a James Bond or Bruce Willis flick. Pure unadulterated adulterated entertainment.

But I didn’t. That was my first mistake.

Second, I shouldn’t have been so naiive and idealistic to think that it was going to be this kind of revolutionary nature-peace-love-and-friendship type of movie. What was I thinking?

sexy naked savage forest fairy hippy

Does anyone remember that cartoon FernGully? Just thought I’d ask.

(I have a suspicion that James Cameron might)

I thought that the initial kernal idea of the film was innovative: some people go to another planet and kind of cognitively control the bodies of these beings that are genetically linked to them, but which are physically more capable of surviving in that environment in order to learn about the new planet and its inhabitants. But the conflict arises immediately that there are those whose interests in the new planet are curious and peaceful (the team of scientists and nature-lovers) and there are those who are merely interested in exploiting resources (the team of bastards) because they have apparently learned nothing from destroying their own planet.

That’s where things started getting a little too simplistic for me, and at this point I should have taken a deep breath, stood up, gone out to the vendor stand, and ordered the bucket of popcorn.

The scenes of the nature on the new planet are truly wonderful and I still can’t understand how they did that. I love when the blue people are running around on those enormous tree branches and flying around on those dragons. The flying mountain-islands were great. Like I said, it’s a visual sugar-bomb.

My main disappointment comes at this critical moment which I choose to call the “moment of failed imagination” when the main character, mentally inhabiting the body of his Avatar, returns to the native people to give them the message toward which the entire film has been building: it’s for this purpose that he has been chosen by the sacred nature-god of the planet. It’s for this purpose that the big red dragon has chosen him as its singular rider. It’s for this purpose that his entire fate has led him to this place. And…

It turns out that all he does is convince the peaceful nature-loving people to fight the team of bastards who are trying to take over the planet Marine-style. He pep talks them to kick the shit out of the military. Okay, maybe the dragon riders don’t have machine guns and hover-ships, but they still decide to fight and the motivating speech is just like something I’d imagine given just before a military troop marches in to blast the heads off enemy combatants.

I don’t think the Marine Corps is evil. Which is another gripe I have against the film. I’m not the biggest military fan (this is another topic) but I thought this movie really painted the team of bastards in all black and the blue nature-people and scientists in all white (or blue, being the color of purity here) and I felt like someone cheated the film by coloring it visually with so much depth, but philosophically with monotone. I mean, that scene where the Marine captain guy scoffs at the natives’ belief system during his pep rally, and every single person in the room sniggers with a snarly grin on their faces, ensuring by poetic justice that they’re going to get killed at the end of the movie because, let’s face it, they deserve it for being so purely evil.

Okay, but back to the moment of failed imagination. What would have been a success of the imagination in such a moment? What could the red-dragon rider have said to the people that would have been unusual or surprising and have made me love the film?

Being constructive and creative is not nearly as easy as being critical.

But what may have been interesting and perhaps even revolutionary is if the nature-loving-peaceful band of non-white savages had somehow chosen to believe in those deep values which they seemed to hold so near, in the fact that renewal and justice come to them and had responded in a completely nonviolent yet very bold way. Or if the nature, the very nature that was being destroyed by the bastards would somehow react against the violence-makers in a way to stop them in their tracks. Or if the human element would actually sink into the people at the top who were making the decisions and they would have some kind of redemptive change of heart. All of those things would have surprised me and would have been refreshing, much less cynical.

The film was in the end a cynical film, I thought. And uncreative with a large aesthetic budget.

Other lesser criticisms I had include:

– would the film actually have been much different if it had featured all black Africans with painted bodies and grass skirts somewhere on our planet Earth? Is it just me, or does this seem like a movie made by a white guy? (Is James Cameron white?)

– Again is it just me, or did it seem like a good excuse to show naked women without them being “women”–and not at all anything real, but rather model-like naked women? Did anyone else find themselves attracted to those naked blue Avatar chicks? I did find the freckles cute.

– I thought that something more significant would come from those tail-tendril-connection thingies. And I thought that the “love-making” scene was totally uncreative when it comes to a new species and planet and those tendril thingies.

Perhaps other things that could be said. I’m interested in your thoughts. What do YOU think could have been a success of imagination and innovative? Did you find it disappointing? Un-Christian? Indecent?

After all this talk of popcorn, I think I have to go find some munchies.

ordinary extraordinary

Here’s a thought:

In the Ubahn between Görlitzer Bahnhof and Schlesiches Tor, I sat reading the first sentences of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and was completely blown away by the transition between looking down at the page, at her exquisite sentences gleaming, twining there like strands of liquid emerald running pages long, and then looking up from the page to the bored eye-contact-averted faces.

The coach was one of those old-fashioned Ubahns—the yellow ones with brown interior and windows with rounded rather than sharp edges—and the light was warm but grubby.

I read one sentence. Wings of angels flighting me to lofts of heaven and I lifted my head. All those grubby faces. I lowered my head—her voice, her characters in complex worlds on edge with emotion, as though each moment the world might explode and everyone die or live forever—and then looked back up: dull, somewhere coffee breath, everyone on their morning commute to paperclips. Paperclips and staplers and printers and hole-punchers.

That evening, walking back home, a breeze ran up behind me, and from behind blew a circle of leaves around my ankles and then twirled them in cross breezes, tying a bow of leaves and wind around me. An autumn package. I walked bound up in this way for a block, and the coal-darkened buildings slid past, an unobtrusive wallpaper for the featured exhibit. I thought to myself:

Who needs lightning bolts and trumpets
when you have a field of dry grasses backlit by the late day sun?

How do these things coexist? How is it possible to be struck by lightning in the ordinary places? Or that the ordinary places can without warning strike you, and themselves become lightning?

“How,” I wanted to ask a lady passing me, “do you cope with it?”

“How,” I wanted to stop a man who looked wise, “do you keep it from destroying you?”

“How,” I wanted to scream and then crumple in a pile and faint and then die in my faint, “does it not make anyone scream and crumpling faint and die?”

That’s what’s on my mind.

And now I think I understand a little bit of those mystics, who always talked about the ecstasy of death.

I don’t want to die, but who can live with so much extraordinary inside the ordinary?

p.s. this is not a suicide note

barely there

The last eight weeks have been a non-stop early-morning roller-coaster of teaching English to unruly German and Spanish teenagers. I am tired. I am out of touch with everyone who I sincerely care about in my life.

One more week of teaching, and my previous life of unemployment will start again. A blessing and a curse. I won’t be straining my introverted energies in front of a bunch of kids who would rather be out in the sun (understandably) than learning about the first and second conditional. But on the other hand, I won’t be making a living.

Always, this struggle to survive, pervading our ability to actually “live”. What does it mean to live well?