Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Some of you suggested I post the sermon I gave at First Unitarian Church on 16 March. Here it is:

When I was invited to serve as Milwaukee poet laureate by the public library two years ago, I had some misgivings. I sort of tried to talk my way out of it. You see, after 9/11, the deaths of my parents, and the intensity of graduate school, I’d made a conscious decision to put poetry on the back burner. I felt, frankly, that there were more important tasks at hand. The nation and the planet were in crisis and all hands were needed to elect a progressive president, fix the voting machines, counter fundamentalism, prevent war, and so much more. I didn’t want to isolate myself at my desk for 3 hours, slaving away at a poem, which IF I managed to get it published, might be read by 200 people, then forgotten. I wanted to be out on the street, with my people, making change from the ground up.

Of course we can argue that the making of art in and of itself is a radical act. But I wanted to be radical like Gandhi, like Emma Goldman, like Angela Davis. I wanted to participate in civil disobedience and get arrested with Code Pink. Not just write about it.

So what actually IS the relationship between the arts and social change? Can a song or a poem or a dance change society, change the world?

I believe the bridge between art and social change is personal practice. With those activities we engage in daily to challenge ourselves and to grow. Your personal practice might be a daily, mindful walk through your neighborhood or a park. It might be “morning pages,” writing in a journal upon waking. It might be meditation or prayer. It might be playing a musical instrument or singing. It might take 10 minutes or 2 hours. It almost doesn’t matter what the practice is, only that we do it consciously and commit ourselves to it. A personal practice takes us from the known to the unknown, the finite to the infinite, the secular to the sacred, the individual to the universal.

I love the notion of practice. Not accomplishment. Not performance, not publication, but just practice. One of my mentors, senior Iyengar yoga teacher Chris Saudek, tells us that in yoga class, there are 2 things one never needs to say. One is “thank you,” and the other is “I’m sorry.” You see, we’re just practicing. Of course all our attempts will be imperfect. There’s no place for pride nor shame. We’re just practicing, putting forth our best effort moment by moment, trying to stay alert and responsive.

Novelist Eudora Welty described how she approached her writing each day with neither hope nor dread. When we come to our practice freed from expectations and judgment, we enter the open realm of possibility. Here, then, is the fertile, generative place of personal transformation. Persian poet Rumi says,

"Out beyond wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about."

The field: that is our place of practice.

But how can my little practice: a few minutes of meditation, some breathing, doing a series of yoga postures, create social change?

Let me tell you a story. One of my favorite public radio programs, Radiolab, produced at WNYC, did a show on music. They told a story that may be familiar to you about Igor Stravinsky. When “The Rite of Spring” premiered in 1913 in Paris, the dissonance and polyrhythms, and the very modern choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky suggesting fertility rites literally drove the audience crazy. They actually had shouting matches and fistfights in the aisles and the performance degenerated into a riot. I’d heard this story many times as an example of how powerful and iconoclastic art can be.

What I hadn’t known was the follow-up to the story, which was that “The Rite of Spring” was performed one year later, again in Paris, and this time it was met with adulation, and Stravinsky was carried off on the shoulders of his adoring audience. What happened in a single year?

According to the neuroscientists interviewed on Radiolab, the auditory cortex, within that tumultuous year, had acclimated to dissonance. You see, when we experience something completely new and unexpected, the brain, which is essentially a conservative organ, doesn’t know how to process it, how to contextualize it. The brain “abhors the new,” as one scientist put it. When the neurons of the auditory cortex are overwhelmed, they start releasing dopamine. Dopamine in small quantities makes us happy. But too much dopamine will lead to schizophrenia. In that theater in Paris in 1913, the audience members had become biochemically insane. But within a year, the brain had learned this pattern, had begun to make sense of dissonance and asymmetric rhythms, had begun to appreciate and even enjoy it.

So from the perspective of the brain, the role of the artist is to disrupt the known, subvert the status quo, and stimulate us into new patterns of perception and understanding. We need art to jolt us, to startle us out of complacency, even to shock us. Art is far more than a place to rest the eyes or lull the ear. If we want our brains to continue developing, we need to expose ourselves to art that confuses us, that we may not find pleasant at first. Beauty is non-essentialist. That is to say, beauty cannot be taken out of context; beauty creates its own context. What is chaos and noise in 1913 is groundbreaking, beautiful music in 1914. By 1940, it’s children’s music, used in Disney’s Fantasia.

“That music is just noise.” “I could make a painting like that.” “Those dancers, they were just jumping around up there, I don’t know what they were doing.” Or in a yoga class, “That pose hurts. I don’t know what the purpose of that is,” or “Lift the kneecaps? What does that even mean, I don’t get it at all.” My friend and eurythmy teacher Mary Ruud advises us to savor those moments of feeling lost and confused. But if we stick with the new experience, the brain gets to work.

The brain starts to sort and analyze and understand the new pattern. Soon the brain leads us to experience the new art differently: “Hmmm, I kind of like how MIA layers different kinds of found sound and sings over that.” “When I sit in front of this Rothko painting, I can really experience the color and notice all its gradations.” Or in a yoga pose, “When I really turned my right thigh out and pressed my foot down I was able to balance and create quietness in my breath and in my mind.”

Isn’t this what it really means to be “open-minded”? On a neurological level, when we are engaged in our personal practice, when we challenge our brains with new experiences, when we expose ourselves to even disruptive or painful experiences like attending Stravinsky’s premier of “The Rite of Spring,” we educate our neurons and create new patterns and thus new understandings. As we literally and biochemically open our minds, don’t we open our hearts as well? We become more attentive and more aware and thus more sensitive to each other. A society comprised of such individuals would surely not leave anyone out in the cold, without adequate food or housing or healthcare. A society comprised of such individuals would not leave the important task of governing to corporations and the wealthy.

If you want a population you can manipulate, withdraw support for artists. Demolish social programs, don’t pay a living wage, deprive people of basic needs like healthcare. Eliminate all safety nets. Make people work overtime, 2 or more jobs, limit their free time. Without free time, we’re deprived of our practices. We don’t take walks, we don’t make music, we don’t do yoga, we don’t write poems, we don’t go to church.

When we are stressed-out, our practices dry up. In that state we seek the familiar and comfortable. We want predictable experiences because we’re already juggling so much. But this is when we need our personal practices the most, and when society needs art the most.

So let us make time everyday to engage in a meaningful personal practice. May we approach our lives as artists, ever growing and evolving. May our work as artists expand outward to build a healthier more compassionate society. May it be so.

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