The Chair and the Man on the House

This morning the street just east of us was cordoned off. The source of the commotion was a large man with wild grey hair pacing back and forth high atop the roof of a house that was under construction. Since I was there last, speaking both to the police officers on the scene and the framing contractor and his crew that had been kept from the job site from all the drama, it was unclear what this man’s intentions were. Was he there to jump, to get a suntan, to get better cell reception? All that was known was that he wouldn’t come down from the roof and that he had a pizza up there with him. One large Domino’s pizza is what they told me. It was unsettling to see the guy up there, a slip and a fall from tragedy, but in some way aren’t we all trying to get to some higher place, get close to the edge; make a bold statement? Look, I’m not the type to walk around the steep roof of a half-constructed house, but still, as a poetical metaphor at least, I think I could understand something of what he might be doing up there.

Today is my birthday and as I feel the hands of time sweep around once again, I can’t help but think about my own mortality, but not in any maudlin or morbid way. It’s more that knowing there is a limit and a definition to the amount of time we’re allotted here on Earth makes me more focused on bringing the fruits of my imagination to life.

I’m fifty-six years old today. When I was twenty-two, (the age I actually feel I am most of the time) someone fifty-six would have seemed ancient. But like I said, I feel twenty-two. I’m even more hopeful now then I was back then, more sure of my ability to put my creative ideas into the real world. There’s a certain hubris that goes along with that, a kind of bravado that may not always be warranted, but it’s what’s needed to take the fruits of one’s mind and actually make them manifest in space and time.

As a songwriter I’ve been trained in the act of moving forward against my fear of rejection, a fear we all share. If I were to listen to my fears, the ones that have always whispered, “Who the hell are you to think that anyone cares,” no song of mine would have ever been written. That is to say that I’ve rarely waited for fearless moments to write my songs. I’ve been afraid very often and acted – equally as often – in spite of my fear.

The thing I’ve discovered after many years of trial and error is that to write, to create anything really, you need to do this one specific thing: (And excuse me for its seeming simplicity) …You need to sit down. You need only sit down with the intention to create. Please understand, I’m not talking about sitting down with a great idea or sitting down with a fearless attitude, I really mean – just sitting down. That’s it. A chair (and a will to act) are your principal tools.

In my case, that means getting my guitar, a pen and paper, and putting my ass in a chair. I know it sounds artless, even a bit absurd to reduce a creative process down to something so basic, but nonetheless, it’s how things get done. In your case it might be driving to the gym, or dialing your mother, or doing a web search for the nearest art supply store; but the fact is that to defy the negative voice inside us, the one that would have us believe that we have no right to create, that what we are likely to come up with will be so devastatingly boring to others (and worse, shaming to ourselves) we need to reduce it all to a primal physical act: sitting down to commence a process.

Once we do, it’s like a floodgate readies itself to open. When I take small actions towards our goals my internal critic says, “You know, Peter’s really into this. He’s proved it by getting to work instead of succumbing to his fear. I’m gonna move over and let him do his thing.” On the other hand, if I were to pace the room, fearfully mulling over whether or not I should begin; this inner critic would be all over me, filling my mind with every sort of anxiety. The other thing that happens when we sit down to write (or accomplish any creative goal) is that whether or not we previously had something to say becomes completely irrelevant. Sometimes having ‘something to say’ actually becomes an impediment to our getting closer to a work of truth and value.

The great American painter, Jasper Johns has said that knowing what he’s going to paint before he undertakes a painting is the least propitious way for him to begin. As he put it, “Why would I paint it if I already knew what it was?” An unimpeded mind is an endless source of information and inspiration. The more we can improve our access to the undercurrents of the dream-like thoughts residing in our subconscious, the more interesting the outcomes will often be.

The guy on the roof with his box of pizza is clearly a troubled man and yet, I believe there is a reason for everything that comes within our purview. Everything we see provides a lesson. Everything we witness is a potential guide, a potential creative spark. If the reason or the lesson isn’t immediately clear (as in the case of this rooftop-dweller) then I just make up one. Since this ‘reason’ is totally of my own creation, I’m going to make damn sure it’s positive. Here’s what I’ve done from seeing the man on the roof and the metaphor he’s planted in my mind. I’ve created a blessing:

‘May we all reach for great heights in creativity and kindness and love; in depth and in measures that were previously unknown to us. I pray that it is all done in health, in happiness, and in great abundance.‘

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11 thoughts on “The Chair and the Man on the House

  1. Life requires perpetual interpretation – this is epistemologically axiomatic. But this is a truth we can only academically comprehend, because a life in a constant state of cognitive interpretation is untenable . . . that way lie madness. So invariably we create a shorthand in our understanding of our lives, a shorthand in our *knowing* of everything. Then we maintain a paradigm that largely affirms this shorthand knowing – like a magnetic field it keeps our lives from breaking apart into a thousand pieces, from being pulled in a thousand different directions. But the creative process is a disruption in the compression of that magnetic field – allowing our lives to breathe a little.

    1. Greg,

      Damn! Who are you?!
      I love how you’ve put this, especially your conclusion on the way creativity is no more than breaking our own necessary and self-limiting rote behaviors.

      Where do you live by the way?
      Happy Thanksgiving Greg!

      1. Happy Birthday and Thanksgiving!

        I’m just this guy, who as it turns out, is a year older than you – who lives in Gainesville, FL . . . who apparently has far too much time on his hands right now. This was just one paragraph out of the five that your blog post inspired – but I did not want to run afoul of your hospitality here by posting the rest . . .

  2. So let’s put that hospitality to the test . . .

    My point here isn’t to extoll or somehow validate the foolishness of existential sophistry that attempts to deny the existence of truth. Truth is indeed a fixed point – it is our understanding of it that oscillates in flux. We know something, until portions of that *knowing* are displaced by a variation in our interpretation – believing this new iteration in *knowing* affords us a better vantage point on that fixed point of truth.

    God is the transcendent truth we are ultimately attempting to interpret, and because we are all created in the image of a creator – creativity is the ancient language we all speak . . . whether we are the one speaking it, or the one listening. So whether I am creating something, or in the presence of something created – I am stirred by a compunction, drawn into the mystery, of which, at any given time, there is only but a glimpse.

    So the artist doesn’t actually create something new (i.e. ex nihilo) – there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). But only offers an alternate interpretation by pulling a thread through seemingly disparate pieces so that we might join with the artist, if only for a moment, and experience a new way of *knowing*.

    So there’s a man in self-exile on a rooftop (no doubt, a curious sight), the details of which remain as a fixed reality. But the artist catches a glimpse of something else within himself, his own need to be on that rooftop – to be declarative in just that way. And so he begins to pull a thread through his own creative process, which is his declarative context, and invites us all to find our declarative context – and then speaks a blessing over what that might look like . . . and so I receive both this admonition and blessing, and offer in return this rather circuitous response.

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