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A Life in Hypertext

Willingness: A Life Aesthetic

i. willfulness and willingness

ii. improvisation and the art of living

iii. positivism, cynicism, and the artful essay

i. willfulness and willingness

The distinction between these two words implies an almost picayune sense of wordplay: toys for the maturing mind. Yet so much is implied here that impinges with a seriousness on all aspects of life. To the extent that life is serious at all, that is, the difference in meaning between these two linguistic siblings is profound.

By way of departure and illustruation, I digress for a moment, if digression it is, to the scene which brought the distinction to light again, this morning in the kitchen with my new partner, call her Wilma. The strength of our relationship, it occurred to us, is our willingness to do it and to do it well. Commitment is a more charged equivalent, yet commitment carries with it the taint of willfulness. With my previous partner of fourteen years, commitment was always an issue, whether talked about or not, and when brought to light was usually resolved in a provisional manner through a quite arbitrary, yet grudging, act of the will; as if to say: "I will commit, if it is required; I merely expect this relationship to last." It didn’t make it past year fourteen, of course, and now I’m left pondering the difference in attitude brought by a partnership more grounded in willing love. In this case I’ve been the one less willing, a reversal. Less willing to give myself to Wilma, to surrender to love. With the growth of my willingness has come the growth of our intimacy, our trust, our faith in the future together to continue. Yet the issue remains a sensitive one. I cannot, again, merely decide to continue in partnership, even in love. The decision has to be rather a discovery, an opening to love, an allowing: a continued and expanding willingness.

I digress yet again to remark on the appalling similarity between this highly rhetorical, analytical prose, and the ironic novel On Love by the brash young Briton, Alain de Botton. Couched in its own, obviously self-aware archness, the narrator's discussions of love are redeemed from philosophic excess and dramatic undercutting. In my case, I must wonder then, it is a cold and heady heart indeed which speaks in such language about love. To remedy this shortcoming takes…what? an act of will? (I need to specify:) willingness, or willfulness, to change?

My friend who returned from his winter idyll in Thailand and Bali counseled me recently on the basis of his new discovery, in hoary middle age, of Divine Providence; and the futility (above all in matters of the heart) of a willful seeking out, a trying-to-get. Trying to get needs met sounds so commonplace-sensible, that it bears examining more closely, and I find that it makes all the difference in the world to turn it on its head.

If I may be so bold to digress still further, I find myself back on the loop I began, by thus allowing the folds and turns of my logic as it writes itself to find the way to the beginning, yet further on. All this like the looping car track on the floor of Wilma's house last evening, the coming together of our families there under one roof, following a spontaneous visit by my daughter to my workspace earlier in the day, an expressed desire for a further visit, a phone call to clear a dinner invitation for later with Wilma…all of these pieces like car-track falling into place, allowed with an openness that might be said to match the more visible willfulness of acting on plans, with the willingness to suggest an idea, to change existing plans, to create life on the fly.

So here we are back in the moment, breathing again, you and I; it has come, as always, to this; and in our love for truth and connection we hold the hands of these words we both understand: willingness, willfulness. Neither is more important than the other. Even the religious text states: God helps those who help themselves. Which is to say, willingness plus willfulness equals results (if results we are after), and results may simply mean grace.

Even to say "results" means our bias is toward willfulness; as we are willfully using willingness to get what we want. On the other hand, we can willingly use willfulness to get what we want, but only if we expect nothing more or less than grace.

I thirst; I pause to fetch water.

Relationship is hard work. It is stressful, as stress is resistance to change, and change is the hallmark of relationship. Hard work does not have to be stressful: it can be healthy and joyful. How? Through willingness. Hard work generated by willfulness only leads to injury and disease, and more daily stress (despite whatever material results may be accomplished). It is the work of our civilization, of technological culture, of modern times. Therefore it is familiar, and accepted as the conventional way to function, still, even in the latter days of the millennium.

In relationship the work requires willingness: openness: surrender to the process, in faith that the effort of change is worth the grace received in abundant loving. Why change? Because in honoring our precious differences, we also honor growth. Growth continues as an impulse for us as individuals as well as together, as an entity. Growth happens through furtherance of our own nature, our own qualities, skills, talents and creative energy, through the work that each of us is able to accomplish in our lives; and also through our willingness to change, to discover new paths, to evaluate our habits and behaviors and open to new possibility. The work is one of acceptance; of gracefully loving what is different in the other. Change is not cut and dried as in, I need to change this or you need to change that. That’s willfulness that comes out of a protective ego, which itself hates change, and wants to force change, if necessary, on another rather than see its own domain and image disturbed. Change that heals is willingness to offer change in one’s own perspective and behavior, and such willingness is supported by the other’s like willingness. When the will to change is mutual, both as individuals and as a couple, change occurs, growth happens, love flourishes as its own reward.

Willingness is listening.
Willfulness is talking, on and on, with a purpose, an explanation, an agenda.

Willingness is opening to the expression of what lies within.
Willfulness is deciding not to share, not to change.

Willingness is being ready to see what happens next.
Willfulness leads to the carrying of burdens, the grudging effort of living through hardship and stress.

Willingness means breathing, relaxing, slowing down, and knowing that everything is happening in perfect time.
Willfulness seeks escape, capture, solitude, revenge.

Willingness allows space, tears, time and the lightness of understanding that the world will get on just fine without our personal cares, without our solo list of things to do, without our refusal to play. We come full circle and awake to a new day, seeing light in our lover’s eyes.

ii. improvisation and the art of living

There seems to be a choice to make: either following the flow of feeling in the moment, or settling in for the long haul, with its own virtues--dependability, loyalty, commitment, steadfastness, focus, perseverance, willingness to work through obstacles for a lasting, more primary goal. Following the first path, the details arrange themselves, as if by Fate; or are chosen arbitrarily, as if for the sake of experiential learning: "Oh, look what happens when I do this…that’s interesting"--a constantly renewing process of engagement. The forms change; yet the process continues. Changes in such a spirit are wrought in partnership with stability.

A master musician will offer a dynamic balance of free improvisation and solid groove: Jimi Hendrix or Mamady Keita, for example. Each takes the tradition (rock and blues, village dance) and does it to a tee; but as a master, as a baby with a toy. Each knows it perfectly but bounces it playfully around, adding so much twist and embellishment that the material provides only raw form to mold in the character of the artist himself.

If art is to add anything relevant to life, it must be fully life-like: which is to say, spiral in form: coming back around, but adding something new. Otherwise, endless outpouring, like blood on the street: or endless sameness, like fashionable schools of K-Mart "literature" which never finds the exit door and dies flourescent death forever.

The creative principle can be applied this way: It's not necessary to create form out of nothing; rather take the given form and use of it what suits you; let the conventions serve as springboards to go your own way (and come back again), to be in tune with that central pulse and spirit of the foundation song or genre, and let it serve as the very body with which the flying spirit plays.

Easy for artists, maybe, to play with forms. What about the rest of us? Daily life is full of struggles, challenges, conflicts. What can we do? Work with it, together: "I promise you I won’t blame you; if you let me feel and express the hard time I’m having right now." Or alone...cooking the pancakes, washing the dishes. Last night a big, shiny black bear unscrewed the lid on the parmesan cheese jar, and also ate Wilma’s pre-packed lunch. We survived. To be together I left behind my comfortable working office, trucked everything up the hill to her house. A computer didn't really belong in her bedroom. So now I have recycled fiberboard on my new study walls--a renovated outhouse. Even so, there is always a tweaking to be done: a waterline or printer to fix, another sinkful of dishes.

Emotions come and go: elation, expectation, ambition, frustration. It must be the kids, the neighbors say. Life in the working-schooling mode leaves no time for clear and full relation: between times hectic and scattered; bodies passing in small circles, abrasive noise of rough edges and private explorations. Why is this boy so sad? He comes home crying from school every day, has to be dragged out of bed and refuses to eat breakfast. But at 7:25, he and older brother burst out the door like buckshot, to the yellow bus.

Or maybe it's me: the case of the new Dad moving in. Styles of parenting, of loving: how long to stay with whiny, cross whimpering….Is it against me, or in need of further expression? Today we hold to nothing but the willingness, the together-spirit. Funky two-burner hotplate, fan-blown space heater: my study, your bed. We need equal time, to stay in that center. But not today, it’s Thursday. Except tonight…and tomorrow flying to town, before the blessed Weekend (kids away to real Dad).

Either way, it's a parade of forms in the human image. Tears rain and love shines, and the trees to one side and the stump and old boards to the back all conspire to frame this home, like any, in uneasy glory. Bees cover the raspberries, and the mountains have taken on that Hereford look. Where is this going? It’s just life. Let the clouded glass break and the knots unravel, so we can write our script for Hollywood-not.

What goes wrong? It’s the suction from the spinning world, that spins us off our axis. A vortex of whirling energy, collective and cumulative, that brings us no peace but through its own explosion to stillness, and simple breathing. The stillness gives vision to new form, and in the giving, new form comes to be in the world. Its being in the world whirls new circuits of energy into the spinning hole, taking us from the stillness to chaos and confusion along the way. When the blur reaches its most unbearable intensity it breaks apart…first fuzzy…into clear space: a fireworks of incendiary mystery. We are left to breathe again.

This motion is continuous: a bottom line definition of self. Into the world we jump again, children all, craving relationship. And so the form we desire comes into play: our lover, our mate. In fond embrace we shape all the energy we can muster into a rounded welter of passion and bliss, until the air clears and a seed takes the ball under its wing and begins to run with it: kids are like that. What can we do?

When they cry, sit down and soothe them, teaching them to talk.
When they rage and nag, teach them manners.

We choose the chores we take on, call these children and walls into being. My sermon says Willingness is key. I go along for the ride: from patient stillness (centering together: mornings long in bed) to random adventure (midnight networking, afternoon dump run along the dusty highway with mixed cloud and heat), finally into fuzz of transition: willing to take the leap off the cliff again, and sail.

iii. positivism, cynicism, and the artful essay

There are those (I’m thinking of William Gass) who shun the content-based essay or article, because it falls into the trap of assertion, while arguments and so-called facts can always be refuted. At the other extreme, past where Gass lays claim to an intervening territory I call "the artful essay," lies the camp of the cynics. These old boys mutter dry witticisms about the failings of this or that or all philosophies, ask for another beer and settle grimly in for the third period. So I come quickly to that middle ground, a world apart, and ask what remains to be said, or rather, how to say it.

It’s about trusting beginnings; trusting the process; trusting the integrity of the creative spirit. If this too becomes a dogmatic rhetoric, a religion or polemic, I say I must then still go beyond to the form itself. The vehicle or messenger, this too is held to security or scrutiny, is blamed: a smoking gun, the soldier who wielded it, even the general who gave the orders; all begging immunity, all guilty or faultless as the jury of peers may determine. The form is worshipped or condemned on its own merits, and rightly so. My quest, then, is to assist in the manifestation of form which is beyond reproach in its effectiveness (even when carrying out a predetermined mission), while also remaining free of idolization.

What, no fame, no features in TV Guide?

It’s rather about uniqueness, which every form as every person demands from the inner core of fire which creates life by life, word by word, day by day. The mission may indeed be predetermined—like this very subtitle, finding its way forward; or, an evaluation can be made, after the performance…and so lead to subsequent renovations. Yet the proof is in the making, in the generation of matter suited to the energy from which it is transformed.

Empty forms, wild verbiage and mumbled mouth music--that’s no answer either. It can be a clear lucidity, a white light shining on pure observation or logic presented simply, in fact or fiction or even feeling; neither rainbow-colored positivism nor murky nihilism, not even black humor. Objective clarity in one school of arts and sciences is itself a proud illusion; leaving commensurate humility to temper the playful confidence with which each creative act is finally accomplished.

We come to rest at last in the single being we are, microcosm and macrocosm. We rest not as on a throne but as in a dance, pausing for breath. We find our hands feeling the music again, and moving in time...

On Painting Self-Portraits

© Nowick Gray

Prefaces and Introductions Without End
- By Nowick Gray

Fiction and Nonfiction
Performance and Freedom
On Autobiography
Keyword Matrix
The Program
Public and Private
Willingness: A Life Aesthetic
Invocation: The Hunt
Yet Another Preface
Wordwebs: Core Topics
Story of My Life

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