What does a soul look like? - A Meditation (Part 1)
This weeks meditation is inspired by a poem from Mary Oliver I reread this week from her book, House of Light, as well as a group of paintings (Group IV, The Ten Largest, No. 7, Adulthood) by Hilma af Klint I saw at the Guggenheim last month. In an interview on On Being, Krista Tippet and the late Mary Oliver said this speaking of the word soul:
Ms. Oliver: It’s become a nasty word lately.
Ms. Tippett: I know it has.
Ms. Oliver: Because it’s used — it’s become a lazy word. It’s too bad.
Ms. Tippett: It’s cliched. The silky part, let’s just call it that. […] poetry does create a way to offer that in a condensed form, vivid form.
I’ve always had an interest in things I didn’t understand. This includes a soul, the silky part, your spirit, your conscience, intuition, aura, energy, inner truth, inner voice, inner life, etc and by implication a God or Gods of many names (my current favorite name is, Mystery). I’ve had different chapters of religion, spirituality and beliefs in my life, and who I was when I believed them. I try to embrace all these past versions of myself with love and freedom from judgement, knowing that who I am today and what I believe, will also change. I’ll have many future world views and selves, but for today, I believe there is such a thing as a soul or spirit. And I don’t want to punish myself for what I believed yesterday, the same way I don’t want to punish myself tomorrow for what I believe today.
To be honest, I’m not really interested in finding definitive answers to what a soul is. I’m more interested in experiencing what a soul is or could be. What it feels like in my own body and imagination, and what the experiences of others might feel like (human and non-human). I’m excited about the questions for which there are no answers, and the artwork that comes from them. I’m excited about those “silky part(s)” as I find them, or they find me. Although I don’t particularly like the word soul either, I want to make art that asks questions about it, and maybe reinvigorates, redefines or reinvents it.
I don’t know what your life feels like, but I know what mine feels like, and there are moments in it where the world feels electric, or strange, or wonderfully ordinary, silky or soulful and unexplainable. Like there’s something happening to me or through me, in me or around me that’s wider than my own understanding.
Some folks turn to science to try to answer this feeling, or do math, or a go to a mosque, a temple, a church, yoga, play music, do drugs, work too hard, move to the city, the woods, go into politics, and a million other things. I make art. I think this will always be the case.
Art for me is like research. Similarly to how a scientist does research into the DNA of the human genome, artist research into the human soul. Both move understanding and acceptance forward, culture and humankind. They may ask different questions, and have different methods and modalities of searching. They may have different intentions and outcomes, yet both have deep intrinsic value.
Maybe making art as research into the nature of a human soul is just the kid inside me still pretending to be a scientist, taking apart pine cones and ferns to see what’s inside, collecting bones and rocks and mushrooms to put on my window sill, or catching frogs in order to release them back into the lake to watch how they jump and disappear into the water. Maybe curious children are better equipped to know what a soul looks like.
What does a soul look like? - A Meditation
What if a soul looks like a clover, open and bright,
beside a footpath in the woods or like a wild flower,
its petals reaching out to the mustard sun
What if the details of a soul, if seen close up, look like thread
sewn in and out, in and out, through crescent-moon-colored linen
What if it has the bend and snap of a wish bone between your fingers
or fades away like morning fog in a patch of white pine and birch
What if it’s translucent, like the wings of a moth, papery and dusted
flickering like a spark before the porch light of your childhood home
What if it’s like a skipping stone, one you find on the shore
of a slow moving river, worn smooth and round by every bodily
relationship its ever had and what if you could pick up that stone
and hold it in the soft center space of your hand, wrapping your fingers
over it like a wave, then sending it out to make widening circles
that write themselves into the current like finger prints
What if a soul is like the egg of a Great Blue Heron, cracking open,
warm and alive, new yet ancient, full of birth and death and feathery intuition,
taking flight from its nest at night, silently gliding out over the surface
of the dark water, then knowingly fading out of sight into nothing like spirit
like wood smoke, like storm clouds, like one’s own breath in the cold
Your turn. What does a soul look like to you? What do you think of Mary Oliver’s description of a soul? What do you see when you look at the paintings of Hilma af Klint? What parts of your life, unique to your experience, could be written into a poem as research about the soul? Send me your ideas! Happy searching, friend.