by Leigh Hendrix
Tell the truth without blame or judgement.
Don’t be attached to the outcome.
-Angeles Arrien The Four-Fold Way
I was first introduced to these words that frame Angeles Arrien’s The Four-Fold Way by a professor in graduate school as a way to approach a theater classroom and it became my personal mantra. I have included it on most of my syllabi during my time teaching at Juniata College and still often repeat it quietly to myself as I get ready to teach or enter a rehearsal with student artists. It feels like the most generous way to approach teaching and creating – with a fullness and deep presence, but without too much pressure on a particular result. Thanks to an online class I took last Fall called Creativity and Permission with writer, dancer, and maker Marlee Grace, (the people who read this blog would probably love her book, How To Not Always Be Working), I have recently returned to this mantra and I am digging deeper into the ways each of the four lines resonate individually in my life and art making.
Before anything can even begin, you’ve got to show up. One definition of the phrase is, “be conspicuous or clearly visible,” and sometimes it is a simple as, literally, showing up – just be there. And that can be a lot and that can be its own kind of challenge – and a bigger step for folks who have more obstacles to navigate before they arrive. And once you are there – whether literally or figuratively – there might be even more obstacles to being fully present.
Some Rules for Students and Teachers, a list often attributed to John Cage but that originated with artist and educator Sister Corita Kent, gives ten rules for students and teachers to use in creating work. After the rules, there are some helpful hints, and the first is: always be around. If you continue to show up to your practice, for your people, for the work of being human, you are putting yourself in the way of possibility.
Where are you spending your attention? I heard author, activist, and organizer adrienne marie brown speak about attention liberation on the first episode of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast this year (a concept she also writes about for Truthout). She encourages folks to take ownership of their attention, not to hide from the realities of the world or ignore injustice, but to spend this limited resource wisely. Where you give that energy will grow, so what do you want to cultivate?
The poet Mary Oliver died at 83 last month, leaving an incredible body of work and a reputation as a nature poet (also, she was a lesbian and sometimes folks don’t remember to tell that part and I think Jeanna Kadlec’s eulogy of her as a poet of queer desire at Lithub is my favorite reflection on Oliver’s life and work that I read). Oliver was a poet of attention and devotion and there are so many places in her work to turn for inspiration if you are any kind of artist. From the poem “Sometimes”:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
I think if we take brown’s idea of attention liberation in conversation with Oliver’s instructions, we are beginning to get somewhere exciting. Seeking out astonishment and sharing that with others feels like an antidote to a cruel and painful world. I don’t think we should pretend the cruelty and pain isn’t there, just that there is value in lifting up the beauty of the world, the work folks are doing to help us take better care of one another and the planet, to look at the scary stuff with an eye toward the ways that we can survive and thrive together.
To hear Mary Oliver read her poem “Wild Geese,” head here.
TELL THE TRUTH WITHOUT BLAME OR JUDGEMENT
I think this is maybe the hardest part – I know that when I think about “telling the truth,” it brings up memories of being admonished as a child for telling a white lie. Or giving critique to a collaborator or having a tough conversation with a loved one. When I think of truth though, I also think of the last line from “On a Greecian Urn” by John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. Perhaps telling the truth is about authenticity and moving through the world as the fullest version of one’s self. “ – that is all/ Ye know on earth,” suggests truth is all we’ve really got, even when – or especially when – a truth is hard or ugly, there’s beauty held there, too.
You don’t find a sense of authenticity without asking hard questions of yourself and your work, and yes, authenticity includes telling other folks the truth even when it’s hard, but it is also something we can practice. Noticing the inner critique (I had a therapist that called that voice The Schmuck – no need to listen to THE SCHMUCK) and how blame and judgement directed at yourself and what you are practicing doesn’t do you much good. I am always working on how to tell the truth with gentleness and generosity, to myself and my collaborators and my communities.
DON’T BE ATTACHED TO THE OUTCOME
I find making plans with kids or working with kids is a great way to experience the truth of not being attached to result – things rarely go how you might imagine them when you make a plan with younger children. “Decorating these gingerbread houses is going to be a festive and relaxing way to spend this holiday afternoon and everyone will have the best time,” you think. 30 minutes later, amidst tears and quitting and untold amounts of frustration, two houses are in the trash but one stands strong – undecorated, but there are walls and a roof! You try to learn to celebrate the small victories inside of what feels like a defeat.
Yes, you have to have a plan and goals and hopes for how something will play out. But not gripping too tightly or having too prescriptive an idea of what success will look and feel like allows for surprises and dampens disappointment. Staying flexible means you’re ready to respond to what is actually happening instead of what you determined was going to happen. Perhaps in a creative process or practice this means placing value on process and people above product. In And Then You Act, Anne Bogart writes, “ The outcome of an artist process contains the energy of your commitment to it.” The process is going to be in the product, so it is well worth slowing down and taking care in how you are moving through your practice.
I returned to a regular yoga practice as 2018 rolled into 2019. I spent January doing yoga every day, guided by Austin-based Adriene Mishler and plugged into the Yoga with Adriene community she has cultivated online (over 4 million people subscribe to her YouTube channel). My daily, at-home yoga practice gives me a structure and a form in which to express devotion- devotion to myself, my wellness, and my art. I am using this practice to cultivate ways of being more available to my community and to the world.
This daily yoga practice is guiding me back to my art practice and reminding me how it is still deeply grounded in my experience of the Viewpoints and Suzuki training. The year I spent in SITI Company’s conservatory program showed me what devotion, discipline, and a daily practice of training and making can do. The ways that The Syndicate utilizes that training as a shared practice and vocabulary is part of what allows us to continue to work together even though we are not in the same city all the time. I have to be reminded that staying connected to my own work is a part of how I show up for my students and for my collaborators.
Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice is research – it gives you more experiences that you can draw upon to ask new questions and take new risks. Practice makes… more practice. And I find myself feeling an awful lot of joy in that.