"Eye of Time (Peacock God Feather)" - fiber art / mixed media by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2010)

“Eye of Time (Peacock God Feather)” – fiber art / mixed media by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2010)

The Hourglass Collection: Working with Time as an Ally and a Muse (Part One)

I will admit to binge-watching new Dr. Who episodes as a reward for handling the pressures of schedule and commitments. It might be a bit of stretch to refer to those viewing sessions as “working with Time as an ally,” but I don’t actually do enough restorative activities, often turning my spiritual and artistic practices into the same kind of pressured tasks as my job responsibilities.  So I’m experimenting with time at home, time with others, and time that is unstructured, and though I don’t own a television, mixing in some viewing sessions of favorite shows, can add an ingredient of being more at ease, when done carefully.  But like many “distracting” activities, even too much Dr. Who leaves me feeling lethargic and not refreshed as I’d hoped.  Time objects hold meaning for me in this practice of mindfulness. I keep a collection of hour glasses on the desk in my office.  When I feel the pressures of too-many-deadlines, I turn one of the hourglasses over and whisper, “There is plenty of time.” Reminding myself to slow down, to put the brakes on the instinct to rush, to not succumb to the “I have to do more, get it all done, take on more…”

But, of course, on the other hand, there isn’t “plenty of time,” in that way that is always true, that as a living being there will be a point in time when I am no longer living, and prior to that, some trauma or illness that will bring this particular body (and life) to a finish.  I am a gay man of a generation that feared we would all die before we even saw our thirties, and when I lived in New York City during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was plenty of evidence all around me that this fear was not unwarranted.  AIDS was killing young men around me, and it felt like a war zone marked by the losses of friends and lovers.  For many of us, grief fueled activism and changed the way queerness would be lived.  Society seemed only too willing to let us die, and we learned to care for each other, advocate for our lives, in ways that could never really have predicted the actual acceptance that many homosexuals feel today.

A friend died a little more than ninety days ago, a man younger than I am.  The time I spent with him in the final weeks of his life humbled me.  A practioner of Buddhism, he was so deeply present for himself during many, many months of fighting, and when it was time to let go, he did so surrounded by loved ones.  It had been a very long time since I’d sat at the bedside of a dying man younger than me, and now, in my middle age, the realities of life’s uncertain length were once more immediately clear.

In Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chödrön writes, “We know that all is impermanent; we know that everything wears out.  Although we can buy this truth intellectually, emotionally we have deep-rooted aversion to it.  We want permanence; we expect permanence. Our natural tendency is to seek security; we believe we can find it.  We experience impermanence at the everyday level as frustration.  We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death.”  There have been a number of deaths, some prolonged and some shockingly sudden, in the web of friendships around me over the past several months.  Death is a real teacher, reminding us that our time together is not a measurable commodity.  In the days that I sat by my friend’s side, the seasons changed; summer became autumn, and once he was moved to hospice, he was able to experience the beauty of the gardens after many months of watching the days through the windows of the hospital.  Each day was so important and fleeting.  I still light a candle for my friend, thanking him for sharing his life with me, and I remember the lessons I learned by showing up, in being present, being a witness for a loved one’s passing.

Chödrön continues, “The Buddhist teachings aspire to set us free from this limited way of relating to impermanence.  They encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change.  Acknowledging this truth doesn’t mean that we’re looking at the dark side.  What it means is that we begin to understand that we’re not the only one who can’t keep it all together.  We no longer believe that there are people who have managed to avoid uncertainty.”

Work in Progress: Michael Sylvan Robinson's "Guardian in the Garden of Delight"

Work in Progress: Michael Sylvan Robinson’s “Guardian in the Garden of Delight”

Starting here, and as I thought of what to title this new writing space, I turned to Walt Whitman, to lines I’ve read and reread over so many years:

“A noiseless patient spider, / I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, / Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, / It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. // And you O my soul where you stand, / Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, / Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, / Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

Whitman’s two stanzas directly compare the seeking of his soul to the work of the spider he observes.  “Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” I’m opening this new space, standing here in this present, musing on art and spiritual practice, the times in which we live, and the circles of community; I am asking the questions of patience, opening a place for deeper contemplation, developing and sharing the tools of communication.

I’ve drawn inspiration from myths and stories working with spider as an ally, as a symbol, as well as observing the beautiful weavers as I encounter them (and their webs). I’ve heard stories of Grandmother Spiderwoman in which she counsels that sanity must be found by leaving an opening in the center of the web, a place for breath to expand.  I know the cautionary tale of Arachne’s competition with Athena, but I’ve also been fascinated by the Arachne-Transformed, her spider skills an inheritance for all her little eight-legged sisters.

In Starhawk’s The Empowerment Manual she describes “spidering” as a role in group dynamics, “Spiders sit in the center of their webs, and from that position they can feel any movement in any part of the pattern.  In groups, Spiders are the central connectors who watch the group’s communications.” This role of the Spider as the organizer-presence who gathers the ideas of different voices, as well as being the one whose hands touch all the various components, is one role I often find myself.  And yet, as we know, the actual spider’s web is built by one solitary spider (there are some spiders that share their webs) to feed.  When I find myself surrounded by a web filled with too many community needs and responsibilities, this awakening challenges me to define better what my own sustainable practices must be, and in doing so, I learn better to ask what nourishes my own life and wellness in this work.  I hear the challenge of patience in the anchored presence of Whitman’s spider, though I note that I don’t claim the “noiseless” in this title, the practice of silence is certainly part of the journey. I’ve been reading a lot of Pema Chödrön and Tara Brach; I’ve been immersed in their teachings of Buddhism and find their wisdom on the practice of letting go, opening to the present, really calls to me from some deep inner place within my busy life.  In Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chödrön writes, “Awakening is not a process of building ourselves up but a process of letting go. It’s a process of relaxing in the middle – the paradoxical, ambiguous middle, full of potential, full of new ways of thinking and seeing – with absolutely no money-back guarantee of what will happen next.”

As a fiber artist, my work is built from the countless repeated movements of hand stitching and beading; my larger pieces can take more than a year to complete.  There is a patience within such a process of craft. My handwork is as distinctive as fingerprints, the stitches so clearly mine. The interweaving of patterns, color, textures a specific voice.  My work brings together all these small components in an intricate surface detail that is also part of a larger conceptual structure.  Listening to the play of the materials brings my hands and eyes together in the realization of new techniques and ongoing investigations of imagery and stories.

And so I spin my words here, anchored in my home, sending out these threads of curiosity and mindfulness, seeking connections in a wider web that we share.

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