“Love is a doing word”

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Spiritual mastery from Massive Attack


These are lyrics from “Teardrop” in Massive Attack’s 1998 album Mezzanine:

Love, love is a verb
Love is a doing word

These are words of spiritual mastery. You may think you misread that. No. These are words of spiritual mastery.

By spiritual, I mean: using metaphors that are closer to the truth. Hence spiritual growth is using metaphors that are closer and closer to the truth. And in this way, these simple words from Massive Attack are so close to the truth that in terms of spirituality, they can only be called words of spiritual mastery.

Love, love is a verb / Love is a doing word gets so quickly at the core of the problems with some far-from-the-truth metaphors for love that this couplet could hide among the Psalms and no one would notice. They would not be out of place there.


I do not speak to my sisters or my father anymore because when I am in relationship with them, I feel bad. We can’t seem to solve our problems, and I don’t like feeling bad, so I don’t maintain relationships with them and I feel a lot better this way—because it isn’t a lie (the lie that our relationship is going well, the lie that we love each other).

And using Massive Attack’s logic, I can’t say I love you to them when our relationship has no extent—no doing! It would be incorrect because Massive Attack is right with this lyric when they claim that love is a verb / Love is a doing word. Relationships grow stale when people live in the same house, even—even when they make love heartlessly—when there is no more doing, no more verb. Love is built on sincere dinners and kisses and touches and trips and gifts and moments spent looking in each other’s eyes and without all that doing, you can use the word “love” all you want but it’s hollow. If you never text me anymore, don’t respond to my emails, we never call, we never visit..there is no relationship, and there is no love.

Love is a verb. Love is a doing word.

Take away those two and to claim the word “love”..is false.

My best friend texts me every day. We talk on the telephone. We’re about to visit. I can say I love her..because there is extent..there is verb..we do with each other. That’s love.

My father never calls me, doesn’t respond to my phone calls, doesn’t respond when I email him custom-designed Father’s Day cards—back when I used to do those things. He refused to participate with me..but he still claimed the word love (I love you, I just don’t know how to—can’t/won’t—relate to you). Well that’s not love. No relationship, no love. No verb, no love. No doing, and you don’t get to say the word love. If you do, in those circumstances, it’s false, it’s fake, it’s empty. It’s as black as the beast on the cover of Mezzanine.

Love, love is a verb
Love is a doing word

Heed that. I don’t care if it first appeared on a Laffy Taffy wrapper or in the lyrics of a trip hop song or in the holiest book of your religion. Those are words of spiritual mastery. They describe love using a simple metaphor that is very close to the truth. When you use the word “love,” ask if the word lives up to this definition. If it doesn’t, then to say it is a lie.

“Let It Go”

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Metaphors for artists

Photo by Mr.Eneko via Foter.com under CC BY

This song was written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez in a single day. They specifically had in mind the voice of Idina Menzel (whose talent is shocking). The result is a song so good that everyone heard it so many times we started making fun of ourselves for playing it so much—it’s kind of like the Titanic of Disney ballads.

When I heard it in the theater, it hit me with such clear metaphors for my own art that I spent 20 minutes after the movie explaining my impressions to my mom, the only person in our party I thought might understand what I was trying to get across. When I was done, she said she saw some of what I was saying, but I knew by the look on her face that, as usual, I was still the queen of my own isolated kingdom which I permanently occupy.

What I’m saying is not that complex, but to get it, it helps to have gone through some of the artist’s journey. For the artists reading this, I will lay out my thoughts with no doubt they’ll resonate instantly and deeply with you.

Let’s follow the lyrics:

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen.
A kingdom of isolation,
and it looks like I’m the Queen
The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside
Couldn’t keep it in;
Heaven knows I’ve tried

She is isolated because she accidentally let out her creative/destructive power. After being cooped up for years, the powers only got stronger—even when Elsa was young, her father remarked that they were getting stronger.

When provoked, she couldn’t keep it in—she’s basically like a bubble that will inevitably pop. She didn’t want to pop, but it’s her nature. A sorcerer does sorcery—it’s unavoidable.

This is like all of us, I think—we are each a package of potential that is unavoidable. We each have a nature, or a skill—just who we are—and that nature is like the shape of a particular tree..that’s the way we’re going to grow, and nothing can stop it, even if we were born under a sidewalk. We will grow through the concrete and become an oak, if we were born to be an oak. To try to stop it would be like trying to stop a flower from unfolding into its particular beautiful type. You just can’t.

Elsa was born with her powers (her father tells the king troll this). That was part of her seed. She was born a sorceress. She was always destined to grow up to be an adult one.

Elsa is still in turmoil about who she is. She has been denying her nature for so long that she has no way to be comfortable with it.

Don’t let them in,
don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel,
don’t let them know
Well now they know

“Be the good girl you always have to be.” Um. Well, Elsa’s powers are obviously not something she considers consistent with being a “good girl.” Magic is taboo in her kingdom. For an artist, this is about making controversial art—art that pushes the boundaries of your culture. The “good girl” idea is so loaded, I can’t imagine how repressive it must be for actual girls. Even as someone who identifies as male, I feel repressed by this concept.

You can’t survive in normal society if you’re not “good.” If you don’t dress the right way to work—or to a date. If you don’t conform to corporate norms, try getting a job. Try getting a job while you have a blog. It’s impossible anymore. We live in such a heavily conformist society that the slightest bit of eccentricity is considered crazy. We somehow have forgotten how damn eccentric were just about all the people who created the art and engineering that our cultures are built upon.

And let me be frank: the smarter or more talented a person is, the more likely they are to be eccentric, because they a) focus on their work rather than impressing others, and b) have enough presence of mind to know that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of them—it’s completely irrelevant. Like us, Elsa has been trapped in a conformist society where in order to survive, politically, socially, she has to conceal who she is, not “let them know.”

“Well now they know.”—And Elsa has a big problem.

I wonder what Francis Bacon’s mother had to say about his painting. Maybe the same thing my well-meaning mother had to say about my early writing. She told me, while I was still in middle school, after she read my first short story—uneasily—“This is good..but don’t show it to anyone or else they might wonder what kind of parents we are.” She was doing her best.

But that’s the “now they know” part for an artist—if your art is countercultural at all. Now they know..you’re not one of them. Now they know..you have opposing or just different ideas. Now they know..you’re not a pack dog..you’re an individual. This is one of the greatest crimes in our society—and if you don’t recognize that as a true statement, then you’ve obviously never tried it.

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore

It could be interpreted as an orgasmic statement!

But just keeping to art, to self-actualization, to the growth from acorn to tree..the thing is..it’s a one-way process. You can’t go back. You can stop—you can stall yourself—or you can go forward. Sadly for all of us, most people choose to stall themselves. Self-actualization is scary shit. Most people, once they realizing they’re doing it, throw on the brakes hard core. My dad did this. He actually told us: I am aware I could develop myself as a writer, but it’s too much work and [essentially] it’s too risky. God damn right it’s risky. That’s the whole point. Live as a lion or live as a mouse (no offense, mice=).

Elsa’s power is too strong for her to hold back anymore. I don’t believe she has a choice. She has to let it go. And I think it is the minority of artists who find themselves in this position—who basically have no choice but to throw away their entire social reputation and political and corporate and financial future because they are driven by an irrational conviction to create their art. These are truly dangerous—and truly powerful—people.

Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care
what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway

Right. So Elsa (the artist) commits to making her art oblivious to the reactions of others. She slams the door on their reviews. She envelops herself in the ecosystem of her powers and what they produce (in her case, ice magic—“the cold”). Others may be unable to live in the (intellectual, creative, controversial) conditions she can live in..but to her they’re no bother because (in her case) ice is her nature—it literally flows from her fingers. What is a deadly (intellectual) storm to others is simply home to Elsa.

It’s funny how some distance
Makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all

The artist must isolate herself. Unfortunately this is a mandatory part of the artist’s journey. This doesn’t mean that you have to move to a different country and change your name. But the fears that once controlled Elsa were born of her relationship with her society—and specifically her family. Her power accidentally hurt her sister!—of course she’s afraid!

If you make controversial art, you will scare your society and especially your family. It’s just part of how this works. Making scary art (being a sorceress) is harder for your parents to deal with than you joining an opposing political party.

Family is the ultimate culture. Reject culture=reject family.

You have to get away from your family to make art that is true to you (if you’re a visionary artist). This may simply mean minimizing the importance of the opinions of people you know—that’s creating distance. In Elsa’s case it’s a literal journey up the mountain. Those work, too.

It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I’m free!

“No right, no wrong, no rules for me.” These may be the most powerful words in this whole song. Elsa (the artist) is in a morality-free zone. This is fairly heavy stuff for a Disney movie. But all art—all revolution—is an almost-complete replacement of near-universal ideas by ideas that were once marginalized. We are in a constant process of this happening. It is not bad—it’s the nature of culture. But it does involve upheaval, and while some of us handle total societal upheaval like eating an ice cream cone, most people are highly resistant to it due to fear of loss of self.

To create—to really create—it is necessary to be in a belief state exactly as described by the Lopez’s in this highly anti-cultural, radical, extremely bold lyric. It’s nestled into a seemingly sweet Disney song, but “No right, no wrong, no rules for me” is serious sorcery. And it’s the kind of sorcery you must embrace to be an artist.

Let it go, let it go
I am one with the wind and sky
Let it go, let it go
You’ll never see me cry
Here I stand
And here I’ll stay
Let the storm rage on

My power flurries through the air into the ground
My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around
And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast
I’m never going back, the past is in the past

Remember how I said that self-actualization was a one-way process? Here, Elsa declares that she’s never going back. I’m not sure if she is aware that going back is not even possible at this point.

Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand
In the light of day
Let the storm rage on

Based on what I said before, you’re probably not surprised that I find this metaphor, “That perfect girl is gone,” incredibly powerful. These lyricists have chosen such a well-placed metaphor (especially for a Disney movie) about one of the most iron-clad cultural expectations in existence: the perfect girl. To declare her gone creates a thousand implications for inhabitants of this society, one of the most important being the claiming of power by this little sorceress, this little artist..who is no longer little, perfect, or merely a girl—that most-controlled entity in our world—but a phoenix reveling in her own icy storm—or in our artist case, her countercultural or controversial art. Instead of society owning her, she owns herself—and that is the ultimate taboo.

The cold never bothered me anyway!

This final statement, for the artist, the sorceress, is her embracing her new life—which for the moment is on an icy mountain. But it’s ok, because she’s an ice magician.

In the same way, you, artist, have built yourself a kingdom—perhaps of isolation, but—out of the very intellectual ingredients you use in your art. You are not in uncomfortable territory. You only have the ability to do sorcery that was in your nature from your very seed..so whatever magical place you have built for yourself..is necessarily a place where you are right at home.