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Are You Baffled?

I was reading one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, the other day. Her book, “Small Victories, Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace”, is a compilation of essays about her life’s challenges, told in a gentle, funny, riotous way that only she can do. She was describing losing a close friend to cancer, and used this quote from the novelist and poet Wendell Barry:

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

The impeded stream is the one that sings. Huh.

I grew up in ‘50’s and ‘60’s Midwest America. My mother’s first husband was killed in World War II, and her second, my father, was stationed in the Japanese theater. All they wanted to do was settle down, have a family, and enjoy their lives, they’d been through enough. When we were growing up, they just wanted us to be normal, average kids who married normal average people of the opposite sex and had jobs that supported us until we retired. To them, these things meant a successful, happy life.

Well, that’s not what happened….at all.

The 1960’s in America was certainly a time when the mind was baffled. The Vietnam War saw to that, as did the whole sexual revolution and the advent of hippies. Hippies came about as close to enlightenment as a group of humans ever has, as they went around preaching peace and love, and sticking flowers into soldiers’ rifle butts.

Then there were the assassinations: the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, to name a few. Racial unrest was unrestful. There was a women’s awakening in there as well, as women began to demand equal everything. Mind expanding drugs like LSD became de rigueur in some circles, as people looked for ways out of the demands of modern life and into more meaningful connection.

There are two things most human beings absolutely abhor: change and chaos. Change, even if it’s seen in a positive light (a new baby, for instance), still creates uncertainty, a muddling of the future, the possibility of tragedy. If only we could depend on the future being what we imagine! But that’s not usually how anything works out. And chaos….fuhget about it. Who wants that? We wouldn’t be able to predict anything! As we all know, humans love to predict stuff, and love even more to be right about their predictions.

But, I think Wendell Barry is on to something here. Without change, uncertainty and chaos, we humans would pretty much stand still, life would be boring, our species would probably die out. It’s the challenge, the solving, the creativity that gets us to move forward and be our best (or sometimes worst) selves. Either way, we learn.

This is the lesson in many epic heroes’ journey stories, such as “The Lord of the Rings”. Frodo has an idyllic life in the shire before the ring comes to him, and he must return it to Mordor. Talk about chaos!

I’m not saying that one should go around looking for trouble, trouble that inevitably impedes the stream. However, to be creative, we need to be going from one place (a place that is not satisfactory) to another, and we also need to feel great (or at least like we’re making progress) about getting there. When I play my violin, some days seem like there’s no impedance, everything flows. But I also notice that I learn very little on those days. It’s when I’m stuck and can’t get a passage to sound right, that’s when I’m actually improving my playing and laying the groundwork for better expression.

For the creative brain to kick in, it needs something to chew on, and that something is usually a problem. When my dear parents were elderly, they chose to travel, which was great that they had that opportunity. But they chose to do it in a way where they didn’t have to think, they were told where they were, what they were doing each day, and even what they were eating! A mind that doesn’t need to figure stuff out is a mind that will eventually stop working.

Both my parents passed several years ago, around the age of ninety. They had well-lived, long lives, but I wonder how much better those lives could have been had they dropped the idea of living the “good” life, and challenged themselves to constantly create? They were continually taken off guard by the fact that they had three children who were never satisfied with status quo, and probably often wondered who we were and where we came from, and why we couldn’t just let them live in peace and quiet.

But, for whatever reason, we were people who just couldn’t leave well enough alone. One of my favorite Roald Dahl quotes is, “There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven't started wondering about yet,” and that kind of describes me and my siblings.

Wonder, impede the stream, baffle the mind, get that ring to Mordor, and you, too, might begin your real journey.

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