Beginning

The grace of starting something new isn’t mentioned all that much, at least, not as much as we talk about the discipline to get started or the inspiration to begin. Maybe it’s because grace is not in our control at all, unlike these other two.

I’d like to acknowledge and give credit to grace itself for creative endeavors as a whole. If we could shed more light on that impulse and generative source, I think we’d find ourselves in a better place and more relaxed with the practice of writing and making art.

For example: testing colors, mixing colors, making colors is a surrender to serendipity. I’ve been listening to an audiobook on the history of colors, particularly the history of the making of pigments by humans, The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. Her description of Prussian Blue–a popular and, for a long time, chemically mysterious pigment–exemplifies this aspect of creating anything new. An 18th-century alchemist in Berlin making a routine batch of cochineal red ran out of a key ingredient, ran out to get some of it while the chemicals waited, and then ran into something weird in the final reaction. Light rose turned to purple, to deep blue.

St. Clair explains more of the weirdness: “remarkably, for much of its history no one was exactly sure what Prussian Blue was. They knew the steps to take to make it but were unclear exactly what was reacting with what. Perhaps, though, that isn’t so remarkable. Iron ferrocyanide, a crystal-blue solid, is a complicated compound with a dizzying lattice structure at a molecular level. That such a thing was created by happy accident seems almost miraculous.” This pigment had remarkably cool characteristics, which endeared it to artists–even Picasso in his blue period, even Japanese ceramics makers.

But that’s still not exactly what I want to talk about, which is the grace that precedes effort and accident in creative work. The sense of a confluence of presences that tip the surface to an angle so that something begins to move, seemingly all on its own, is what I mean by grace.

These roses are from a grower in California by the name of Grace Rose Farm, a family-run enterprise.

The grace at the beginning of creativity is unsought, unprovoked, and often bemoaned as a catastrophe rather than welcomed as a gift. It is often very strange. It is often difficult to figure out what to do with it.

That’s where the discipline and inspiration come into the process: to make it manageable, useful. Creativity is a process of cultivation, but one that depends entirely on strange, serendipitous shifts in internal landscapes.

Not to change the subject, but I just got a notification on my computer that the Inflation Reduction Bill just passed the Senate. Seems an auspicious sign that we are beginning the shift toward a more sustainable future in the near-term. Both of these strands–helping to make medicines affordable for people who need them and helping people to make climate-sensible choices–signal to the source of grace that we understand what the gifts we are given are for.

Serendipity again: today’s chapter of the Dhammapada observes “A man is not a supporter of the law because he talks much; even if a man has learnt little, but sees the law bodily, he is a supporter of the law, a man who never neglects the law.” This particular verse, though I’m really interested in Muller’s classic translation, left me a little cold with its outdated language, so I sought out a modern version.

Dharma is not upheld by talking about it. Dharma is upheld by living in harmony with it, even if one is not learned.

The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran

Finally, yes. That’s what I wanted to say about grace and about creativity in general. Also to say that I’ve started reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales this week. A glorious gift to set out on a pilgrimage, an unfinished one, with a master poet of the English language. To me, this feels like beginning over again in poetry’s immense grace.

If you want to write a poem…

Try renaming a star tonight, or on the next clear night. Or take a look at a star chart, or one of the new MIRI images from the James Webb Space Telescope. Why did you name the celestial body what you did? Try writing the story of the new naming, or just address the star directly in your poem.

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