The Civilizing Effect / Finding Refuge


The Vermont College of Fine Arts Alumni Magazine asked me to contribute an article about “Life after the MFA” for its Winter 2014 issue. As graduation season approaches, I’d like to share these words of encouragement and strategies for coping with writers and artists everywhere who may be facing difficult transitions. Do let me know what you think.

Tarot_Fool_RWSLike the fool in the Tarot, when we leave graduate school we’re all potentiality, accompanied solely by our trustworthy dog, our instincts. As an inner quest, it’s a solitary journey, but one that outwardly propels us to seek a balance between engagement with others and communion with our private souls. To paraphrase John Updike: Writers are cave-dwellers who want to be chased into the cave. Most of us in the arts welcome interiority, but not to the exclusion of interaction and attention.

Probably it’s an exaggeration to think of leaving the MFA fold as exile—graduation is a ritual of transition not an enforced condition—but let’s face it, once we depart the walled villa of graduate school, its significant mentors and tribes of friends, we’ve changed. I’m talking about often radical transformation, shifts in perception, self-awareness, altered habits of speech and thought—subtle and wrenching metamorphoses.

A funny image comes to mind. Remember Lon Chaney in the Wolf Man movies? Remember how his forehead would begin to bulge and fur crept up his neck? Remember the horrifying spectacle of watching him watch himself become a beast? Let’s just play with the idea that VCFA grad school has the opposite, civilizing effect.

Or let’s say we’re initiates undergoing a rite of passage—we’re being scarified, tattooed, sent to the moon hut, learning to decode the stars. The purpose is to move us to the next stage of development. The transition is luminal but time-bound: for ten days we’re severed from the known world. Our preconceptions about ourselves, our work, the meaning of work are morphing. Soon we’ll be bestowed adult membership in the clan. We’ll carry on the tradition. We’re the seeds, the fruit.

Anthony StorrThe British psychiatrist Anthony Storr suggests that when a break with the past is imminent and issues of identity, belonging, and continuity arise—while the furniture in our psyche is being rearranged—patience, retreat, and reflection are required. Simply put, don’t rush to the surface of your life without expecting to get the bends. If art is an act of incarnation so is the evolution of an artist.

On the other hand, when it’s time to leave campus as graduates, we’re beset by homesickness and anxiety. It’s been a big experience. Without the structure of a residency, without assignments, deadlines, or the goal of attaining a degree, how will we manage to keep our public/domestic lives from usurping or artistic space? We’re lonely for the old life, our teachers and our cohorts. Where will we now find community? Inspiration and support?

In-post-MFA life we’re a scattered lot. But we belong to a history we carry as part of our identity, a place inside ourselves, a refuge we can return to again and again when our creativity feels in jeopardy. Recently I emailed my friend and dharma teacher Cheri Maples, co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness & Justice, about the Buddhist notion of sangha and taking refuge. cheri-maples-transmission-of-the-lamp-ceremonyCheri, ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, whom she calls “Thay,” replied: “Thay speaks of sangha at a cellular level (the sangha body), which is totally interrelated to refuge . . . when we’re together as a practice community (sangha), we rest in common shared values, and then when we go outside, we’re the living embodiment of that community (we’re a cell representing that body, reflecting those value and commitments of that body). We return to the sangha/community for refuge, to rest and replenish ourselves. We know we create something together as a sangh that no one can create individually.”

We’re a cell representing that body, reflecting those values. . . . This is the perfect image of how I think of post-MFA life. We take refuge in the teaching we’ve absorbed, in our creative selves, and in the good company of others. When we need support, we find each other. We return to campus for retreats. We’re never without sources or resources. We continue together as sangha, as vital cells of a living whole.

Three Jewels

Exchanging devotion

mindfulnessThe subject line of an email caught my attention last month: Devotional Exchange. The purveyor of the message hoped to start an interfaith/no-faith exchange and requested I send a number of friends my favorite motivational/devotional poem or meditation. When I looked at the names already on the list, I saw some were dear writer friends. This made me curious. I reread the request and decided to participate. Unlike the chain letter I blogged about in February, good luck was not being offered this time. What I did receive was much richer than mere luck. Participants shared devotional passages they treasured. I’ve copied some of them below. I’ve always felt that when emotional turbulence strikes, or when seeking advice on the human condition—go to the poets! Don’t many of us have a Rumi or Hafiz poem we pull out in emergencies? When I was fifteen and besotted by teenage love, I devoured Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poet Mary Oliver is regularly read at weddings and funerals, and Bob Dylan’s a prophet to some. So, here are some of the devotional pieces that came my way, the first, unfortunately, without a credit.

Always expect something wonderful is going to happen. Your mind is a powerful thing. When you fill it with good thoughts, your life will start to change.


samuel_beckett1Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho (1983)

When the shell of my heart breaks open, tears shall pour forth and they shall be called the pearls of god.

—Rumi (13th century)

Try to praise the mutilated world

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June’s long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,

you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

—Adam Zagajewski, translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh (2001) [Even though written before 9/11, this poem became affixed to the event when The New Yorker published it for the first time on its back cover on September 24, 2001]


RumiThe Guest House


This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.


A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.


Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

—Rumi (c. 13th century) Translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks

davidfw2Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lambsquarter, cutgrass, saw brier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butterprint, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads nodding in a soft morning breeze like a mother’s hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

—David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (2011)

C.G Jung Portrait“To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. If you want to create yourself, then you do not begin with the best and the highest, but with the worst and the deepest. Therefore say that you are reluctant to live yourself. The flowing together of the stream of life is not joy but pain, since it is power against power, guilt, and shatters the sanctified.”

—C.G. Jung, The Red Book: A Reader’s Edition (2009)

whitman_log“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Walt Whitman, from the Preface to Leaves of Grass (1855)

Who do you go to for succor and inspiration? I’d love to hear what texts you turn to for uplift during challenging times.