Dial M for Meaning

Hello dear friends! Just tuning in after a year of migration to assure you that I’m still here and doing well, and I hope you are too. I would like to share my thoughts with you on the imperilled stature and untapped potential of the arts these days – at least the kind I dabble in. In desperately searching for meaning whilst in pandemic isolation I trust I haven’t surrendered entirely to magical thinking, an admitted weakness of mine. Begging your indulgence, I’ll open this e-pistle with a line from one of my favourite poets and a fellow magical thinker, Theodore Roethke, who without a flicker of doubt, assures us that “in dark times the eye begins to see.”

Recently, my venerable Sister Ms. Pat, contemplating scripture or words like those above in Roethke’s poem, took up painting by number for the first time at 84 years of age. The novelty of this decision inspired me to select images from a collection of Mystery Paintings originating in the Monkey’s Tale Centre and the Step-by-Step Studio in Sri Lanka, between 2005-2015 with the idea of marketing a sample series of Paint-by-Number Mystery Paintings like Dark Doorway (opposite left) which could help support the studios in Sri Lanka, as well as the Butterfly Garden in Batticaloa. People in Batti dream big even though – or possibly because – they are still coping with the trauma of the war and these days, like everybody else on the planet, with the new Apocalypse de jour, Covid19.

Our Stupid School branch in Toronto, also known as the Falling Sky Studio, could also use a boost . It keeps juddering along zombie-like between life and death and may need a shot of Walter Reed Hospital’s elixir, the remdesivir / dexamethasone cocktail we heard about in the news after it saved the U.S. Zombie Chief-of-State from encountering an entity more obnoxious than himself.

The truth is that Falling Sky Studio, while stalled mid-pandemic, still has a pulse. Our SWAT (Specially Wonderful Art Team) is on call 24/7. Art classes will return someday, recognized balm for young people in a world battered and bruised by war in places like Syria and Yemen, or by imminent eco-collapse in Bangladesh and Sub-Saharan Africa. These kids intuit and understand first-hand how their elders, in trying to escape the terror of a history and homeland in flames, may have lost compass and settled their families in a deeper grave than the one they escaped. A desperate need to arrive home, and never have to leave again…  isn’t that everyone’s fondest wish and enduring prayer?

Since Canada has been so accommodating as offer the homeless shelter, why would we abandon them once they get here? We have a responsibility, not easily shirked without shame, to help young people explore the abundant homeland of their hearts, confusing and contradicted as that territory may feel. It’s not just about becoming Canadian. It’s about being human in the fullest sense of the word and finding meaning for themselves. We owe them nothing less.

21.1 In Pandemonium, Prophecy

Here is an old Chong adage from the stoic period of our short-lived and dubious culture: “In pandemonium find prophecy”, meaning of course that a good story will carry you home when you feel lost, no matter how improbable its premise. But you do have to believe in it. Passionately.

We’ll have to sell thousands of Mystery-Paint-by-Number sets to achieve our noble if somewhat delusional goal, but when a fundamental sense of meaning disappears from life you grasp at straws . Automatically. Because you’ve got to start again somewhere, anywhere, even with an insane idea like this. Mystery Painting Paint-by-Number kits may have been a mad idea born of a mad mind at a mad time but we need to begin again somewhere. So why not with Mystery Painting Paint-by-Number kits?

I reckon that Mystery Painting paint-by-number enthusiasts will sooner or later wander into the real deal, Mystery Painting itself. If they can find an amenable space they could share original images and stories with new friends, in small units of four people, observant of all local pandemic public health protocols.

The unfolding images inevitably create an inter-psychic bridge between individuals, and more fundamentally between spirit and matter. Each painter will find for himself a story thread to guide them through their own labyrinth or, if you wish, mind field. They can move forward, backward, sideways, or in any direction they please, but no one will be able to help them even if they want to. Only the original painter can divine meaning in the tangled snail trail of paint they leave behind themselves on the canvas … hmm …. thinking it over now I’ve just decided on a radical but obvious change of direction. I will drop the idea of Paint-by-Number at this point and return to the sublime simplicity of Mystery Painting itself and, given an end to the interminable pandemic, adequate financial support and an agreeable venue, I gladly extend an invitation for others to come and join me.

21.2  In Mayhem, Meaning

It was thirty-seven years ago that I unconsciously but wholeheartedly committed to cultivating poetic imagination in children challenged with disability and chronic illness at the Spiral Garden in Toronto. Not only did these kids give meaning to my life but I really enjoyed them. The methods we developed at Spiral Garden were later adapted to suit local conditions in the Butterfly Peace Garden in wartime Sri Lanka and Mango Tree Garden in post-genocide Cambodia.

This is when and where we discovered something completely original, a seed practice called Mystery Painting, which combined silent meditation, art, story creation and dialogue. It allowed participants to give form to the unconscious energies and impulses that directed, or misdirected, their lives. Through cultivation of intuition and imagination they could see what they really cared about and leave behind what belittled and ensnared them.

The time has now come to bring the vision back where it began in Toronto and share it with young people from all over the planet who now live right here in the urban emergency ward called Greater Toronto where their sanity is challenged every moment by having to negotiate the collective traumatic effects of trans-cultural migration, the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, climate crisis, teen angst and digital dementia while trying to find their place in an alien world. What better way to face fear and mediate looming social anarchy than to invite young people to source their own prophetic imaginations through the practice of Mystery Painting?

In general these days there are two viable ways to cope successfully with identity loss: playing dead or playing the game. The Garden Path game requires manipulating raw imagination within the world as given and involves episodes of self-denial, self acceptance and self-transcendence taken in turn along the way. It re-enacts the classic hero’s journey and culminates in a rabbit hole of revelation one cannot describe without wonder, in words one immediately forgets.

Most of us don’t have the patience to entertain juvenile fantasies as our full time CV-19 job, nor do we want to risk our own or others health, but I wonder what alternatives there are other than being imprisoned by an imperious two-dimensional screen? Can we not find more meaningful ways to connect with one another, Covid compromised or not, without resorting exclusively to social media? How else will we survive the global surveillance lobotomy we consent to undergo as a matter of routine every time we log onto the Internet. A precarious fault line has opened between our mental and physical wellbeing with this pandemic which no amount of tweeting and texting will resolve.

The addiction to hi-tech self-harm feeds directly into the pandemic mental miasma and results in quantum amplification of the effects of loneliness already epidemic in our communities as screens replace-person-to-person contact. Some people say the sense of isolation and being cut off from loved ones is the worst thing about Covid.

From watching TV and the Internet we witness democracy in peril globally these days, hi-jacked by political hucksters in collusion with the very medium that informs us of their dreadful deeds in ceaseless waves of “Breaking News”. We live, not in a democracy but in a kakistocracy, from the Greek “kakis” for “the worst”. We can only hope it will bring out the best in people and that we will persevere, each in his or her own way, to make that happen.

Many, having given up hope, sink in the sludge of depression and despair. Others, having torn off their face masks, take up arms and riot in the streets of America. Ten months into the pandemic people are saying they’d rather die than carry on with the masked ghost dance. Scientific studies predict two, maybe three, more years of public health regimentation worldwide, plus another year for universal dissemination of a reliable vaccine. Some say the pandemic is here to stay. What we have now or worse will become the new normal. The poet Adrienne Rich asks how can we best make use of our time here “to learn from pain even as it grasps us”?

Socrates, on his death bed, is reported to have advised his friend Crito not to philosophize but to “practice and cultivate the arts”. Likewise in the Garden, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, we try to maintain “presence in poiesis as the practice of peace”. It comes down to the same thing. Poiesis means flow, the endless flow of information, imagination and – let’s face it – our lives into eternity. We call it the Garden Path.

21.3 In Lockdown, Enlightenment

Please don’t listen to me! I’m lockdown lunatic. But do listen to Socrates and my wise old Sister Ms. Pat. Practice and cultivate the arts. Enrol and start tuition in a Stupid School near you today! Think about it. No matter how smart you are, no one’s too smart for the Stupid School. The fact is the smarter you are the more you need it.

I will admit, however, that superior Stupid Schools are not easy to find and this one, Falling Sky Studio, is no exception. It’s a little like the hedge schools in Ireland during centuries of British occupation. They’re there, but only the fairies know where. If you want to know more you can contact me in the nearest hedge row or just ask a passing fairy.

To be clear, I’m not saying collective practice of the arts is the one and only answer to the present public health crisis but it does add a valuable component, particularly in the area of mental heath, that social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands alone do not address. Why not use a palette of contemplative practices such as those offered by the our Garden Path Out-of-the-Box Curriculum to engage with a more soulful vision of human development? Maybe we can find meaning in this mayhem beyond the hustle and hype of our pre-pandemic lives.

Art is, for the most part a useless passion, which is why we love it so much. It’s useless the way a falling leaf is useless or birdsong at the break of day. We come and go in this life from one unknown to the next. Then it’s over. If art exists for any purpose it’s to inspire deeper faith, hope, love and insight into the human journey. No simple task. The Japanese poet Sengai described his perplexity this way: “To what can I compare this life of ours? Even before I can say it is like a dewdrop or a flash of lightening, it is no more.”

Why not give art a chance to work it’s magic in our lives, like it did in Sri Lanka at the Butterfly Peace Garden during a time of war and the  tsunami? What we discovered there is that we have to focus if we want to do the hocus-pocus. In other words, we have to dedicate real time and space for transformation of consciousness, facing gods and demons up and down the day like weather. We must learn the art of dreaming while we still have life in these bones. Then we must walk our dreams proudly down the promenade into the broad light of day. Art is the practice of dreaming aloud. And dreaming aloud is a deeply inventive act that may seem like madness to most people.

Mystery Painting and other practices of the Garden Path foster a renewed sense of connection, community and creative capacity by replacing fear with poetic imagination and a sense of purpose. These practices flourish best in fully embodied presence to one another not just as fleeting faces on a screen which has now zoomed in to become the new normal.

Given circumstances these days with Covid19 we acknowledge the risk of gathering in large groups indoors and thus we accept the current need for screen classes, or a mix of screen and in-person classes, but we also bear in mind the paradox of hi-tech teaching, which is: the impossibility for one soul to touch another deeply via remote learning. May it never become the permanent reality.

Covid-19 is what the ancient Celts called the bogeyman’s blessing or what today’s Tibetan teachers today call an obstacle blessing, both of which challenge us to transcend ourselves in unprecedented ways. “Not till we have lost the world,” said the poet Henry David Thoreau, “do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

While unconvinced that a stopgap cure will arrive on time to slow the ascending suicide curve, especially among youth, I am optimistic that we can and will surface from our pandemic panic and digitally enabled narcosis through creative collaboration with real people in real time and space. There is so much to learn about loving and taking care of one another and the practice of the arts helps us with that. Inuit wisdom has an simple and direct way of expressing the promise of our predicament:

What lies behind us and what lies in front of us is tiny compared to what lies inside us.

What it all comes down to now is small, focused and responsible social actions that make our lives as real, meaningful and safe as possible during these monumentally surreal and unsafe times.


Thanksgiving  2020




Written by Paul Hogan