Technology of the Spirit

This article (slightly modified) was originally requested by a New York City magazine which published my poetry and asked me to write about my art in answer to question for that issue: "Can art make a difference?" Alas, the mag changed editors and the piece wasn't published. So I've modified the article a bit to answer to how the Mystery School can affect one's art.

Four years ago a friend looked at my shaman's sticks and rattles and asked what I knew about "talking staffs." Could my shaman's sticks, made of green dyed bamboo, shell, stones, acrylic dipped paper, plastic lens, copper wire, carvings of birds or salamanders, be used as one she wondered? And by kids 8 or 9 years old? She had a lot of boisterous boys in her nature studies class and thought using a talking staff would help to bring order. I'd never seen a talking staff, but I told her I would make her one. I began immediately, taking an aging broom stick handle (I now use dowels), cutting it to proper length, sanding away the remnants of paint and rotten wood, carving and painting. I used green, yellow, black, and red, put on small Japanese brass bells, swallow feathers, beads. I tied on bamboo segments and nailed on carved bone "spears" from India. Carved and painted two animal figures.

The year before I had started making great a variety of objects: what I call shaman sticks; also rattles, some kaleidoscopic out of plastic, others from gourds and wood. I made "spirit knives," "prayer bundles," small kachina size figures (none of which look like their Native American counterparts). Rattles were particularly exciting as sculptural forms, almost no one has worked with them (except primal peoples working within a set tradition) in thousands of years; everything you do feels new.

I was attempting to produce a kind of technology of the sacred. That I would try to do so surprised me, but I did it anyway. I hated to admit it, but the stimulus for my work came from attending Mystery School. It might embarrass me, but that's what had set me off. Suddenly I made shamanistic objects, as if they would work, as if they could be used for shamanistic purposes. Some were static, but others moved, clicked and could be used like a shaman's drum to travel to realms of imagination. Others were meant to be made and destroyed. They were put among black Cambrian rocks and pulled out by the tide, or placed by friend in a tributary of the Rio Grande. And it was sticking to seriousness -- making objects that looked like they might work, which made my sculptures more interesting.

I call it "dancing with Shiva," before I thought of it as "facing nothingness" -- the blank page -- whatever. The old formulation was from existentialism and never felt quite right. (I was unaware of Keats' term of "negative capability" which is the best abstract rather than metaphorical description I've seen.) But for me the Indian god, Shiva, is a more accurate evocation of the possibilities pregnant in emptiness than a flat abstraction like "nothingness" which seems entirely negative. This doesn't mean I do big things or even necessarily have talent, but whatever your talent and skill when you dance with Shiva, you are not as aware self-consciously what you're doing; that is your conscious intentions remain sketchy, or bracketed, or you add them later. You try to get under, around, conscious thinking. You dance and see what happens. Afterwards you usually don't have a clear idea what your own work means, you have to try to figure it out like any critic or observer. I once even had a "name-the-deity contest" for one of my figures -- the response was interesting. Suzane Belz wrote a short concrete poem like a crossword puzzle; I'd expected a linear logical response. I couldn't seem to figure out what the figure was about myself, then sitting looking at the figure one day, it came to me. Sometimes, though, the dance doesn't happen, and you spend your effort desperately trying to find the rhythm or order in a piece that's failing. And sometimes it's like being forced to dance by the numbers, or you trip over your own too complicated footwork.

Working with 3 dimensions, with objects seen from different directions, still and in motion, some of which produced a sound, was liberating. I'd come home from bartending at 2:00 a.m. and work for hours. After a few weeks this phase passed. Friends who had stared politely at my paintings were suddenly full praise and surprise. Then a few people actually bought what I was making. I'm not sure my work is seen as art, or something to put on a wall or table, or as a shaman's tool, the ambiguity remains.

But when I went to make talking staffs, I worked with conscious symbolism in mind, and built into them the four directions, 12 months, abstract mirrored sunrises and rainbows, and something representing what the poet Gary Snyder calls "the air, land and sea people." For the first time I was comfortable with consciously decided-on symbolism, but I did use the strong shamanistic color I discovered by polishing orange sumi-e ink and coating it with acrylic for the animal figures I carved. I figured otherwise it would be easy to make something patronizing -- "for kids," and lose the quality of otherness and magic. I built the staff strong, covered it with coats of tough varnish, but was told later this was not necessary, as the kids handled it respectfully as a kind of sacred object.

The talking staff worked even better than the teacher hoped. It quieted her loud boys all right, but it also brought out the quiet kids -- a little girl who had never spoken, or even showed much change of expression was transformed, if only for a few minutes. They passed it around to other teachers to try. They called it "the quieting stick" instead of talking stick, because it help to settle down and focus the classroom so well. Another teacher ordered one. Marvin Sussman bought one to use in his graduate seminars. My friend added her own totem objects: dried sea purses, a hawk feather, snake vertebra that looked great on the staff, but also evoked the subject she was teaching.

Then another irony. The men's movement had interested me at a distance, sociologically, but I never had the least desire to get involved. But at one weekend at Greenkill, a group of the men were sitting around in the dorm after evening's lectures and spiritual exercises. We tried the talking staff format half seriously, minus a real talking staff. When it came to Harry Koff, who was so quiet and soft spoken that he was often almost overlooked, he suddenly told us a vivid story being shot down over Germany in WWII and parachuting on cloudless day toward a monastery where he could see monks pointing hopefully up at him, and then twisting, and as he descended, seeing the Nazis coming up the road and knowing that instead of escaping to Portugal, years in a German POW camp awaited him. We realized then, that it would work for us as well as kids. It wasn't just Harry coming alive for the first time, the conversation seemed to deepen. And it seemed to deepen because of the method of the talking staff (one person speaking at time, full attention on them, no comment on what they said unless comment was invited.) This even though we'd only been fooling around, drinking beer and relaxing. We formed a men's group. It was suddenly in the air, and Paul Mayer provided the initiative. I remember the two of us standing downstairs at the fieldhouse waiting to see if anyone would show up. Five years later it's still going.

I've been able to discover two accounts of the origin of talking staffs: one that they were the Native American technique used, particularly by Eastern tribes, for important council meetings. The other that developed from a reading of a scene in the Iliad at a New Age Commune and used to decided commune business.

In the 1980's the men's movement discovered, adopted, and spread their use. The idea is to pass the staff, only the holder may speak, no one may comment or interrupt, the holder has all the participants' entire attention. There is sometimes a time limit, but it seldom becomes an issue. People edit what they say because they have other people's attention; five minutes seems like an hour. The idea is to speak from the heart, not spout opinions. You can pass the staff without talking at all, or choose to speak later.

I'd made talking staffs for other people, now I found myself actually using one. I was surprised at the profound effects of this simple device in externalizing psychological and social intentions. Why did it work so well, I wondered? First, it seems to me that it slows down conversation, paces it, controls its speed. There is a pause from one's immediate reaction to what someone says until one gets a chance to speak. Many people may have spoken before the staff comes to you, so you develop perspective and clarity about what you want to say. Talking staffs reduce anxiety and open up the individual -- you are not going to be interrupted or argued with, and you have every one's attention already without having to compete for it. It promotes equality, yet it is transparent; a leader remains who he is, but for the moment she or he is not above the others.

Do you need a physical talking staff rather than just using the format? Yes and no. It's helpful, convenient if nothing else. Changes in consciousness are expressed in art and artifact, "externalized" (if you accept our current dualistic way of thinking.) The talking staff is visible, it adds ritual and a ceremonial quality so often lost in our informal anti-ritual society. Finally, in the very funny Murphy Brown TV sitcom spoof of the men's movement, the talking staff used is a silly and absurd looking object. That's good for comedy, but I set myself to making talking staffs not so easily made fun of, staffs which are beautiful and express mystery. They may be silly or odd too, it takes both the humor and seriousness to evoke deeper conversation between individuals. I believe a totemic and interesting staff evokes a feeling of connection, as well signaling that something is occurring different from the ordinary, the everyday. New ways of consciousness need to be expressed by new art and artifacts. It's hard to laugh off Zen Buddhism, or Christianity and Judaism and the other great religions, in part because of the art and ceremony they produced. You listen to Gregorian chant, look at a Zen garden, hear Kaddish, and you know an extraordinary state of consciousness existed and can be projected, if only for a few moments.

Thr talking staff's usefulness is not limited to the men's movement, even though that's what they have been associated with, anymore than it was to a Native American council. A talking staff might work for children as young as four, and in many other situations. I have no experience in group therapy, but the occasional or regular use of a talking staff would break up certain problems that develop -- one person hogging the show, psychological alliances and what-not that I'm told often occur. They could be used in business. Or in the military, which faces vast cuts and changes, or to help heal the emotional wounds of combat. And also, using a talking staff reflects a recognition of what primal people can contribute directly to modern highly technological society. And for those who are small part Cherokee or Kiowa or whatever, perhaps it resonates with that part of one's ancestry that often goes unacknowledged, and does so, I think, whether one's particular tribe or people used talking staffs. This way a great-grandfather or grandmother and their people do not go forgotten, so that all the streams of one's heritage are gathered in, honored.

So in answer to the question, we can make a difference, we can make art that makes a difference, if a very smaller difference than we'd like. When an adult (say in the men's movement) uses a talking staff, he moves beyond accepted practice of the mainstream, expresses and affirms his willingness to act and appear different. To find new ways of being a human being, however tentative. We must take a chance on being foolish if we are to begin to move ourselves and history -- to make mistakes. There seems no other way. We are mainly prisoners of pride and our images of ourselves these days, not external repression, although that exists too. The smallest, most insignificant piece in the fluctuating jigsaw puzzle contributes to a better world, contributes, I would say, necessarily. At one level it has to be there. If in however small a way, we do not choose to make a difference, then no difference is going to be made.

Stephen Williamson

Steve's Rattles