Tara K. Shepersky is a contemplative walker, writer, & photographer based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She is also the creator of The PenPal Project, an experiment with community, sustainability, and joy. This is the latest installment in her monthly column about the creative practice.
This morning I took a walk, just a little before full dawn. It doesn't matter if you're reading this on a different day than I'm writing it. I will likely still have just taken a walk before dawn. I will likely still have made the following request as soon as I could see the open sky: "Patience. Kindness. Courage."
For someone who historically wrestles with the very idea of prayer, I've taken to this simple practice of it without premeditation. In three words, I remind myself to cultivate three virtues.
I've had an unusually focused, connected, intense, very physically present couple of days. I find this kind of density over time clears the scattered buzzing of the brain more effectively than just about anything else. Two days is only a very little time to experience such density, but it was enough this morning to prompt some curiosity about my daily request.
Patience, Kindness, Courage. Why these three?
A) I'm not naturally any good at them.
B) I admire them when I see them at work in other people. Virtues are not personality traits. They're something you can practice. They're habits.
C) Patience, kindness, and courage are my own application of the cardinal Stoic virtues.* I have a long-standing interest in Stoicism — Stoic like the school of philosophy, not stoic like the modern adjective — owing at least partially to my argumentative acquaintanceship with a dead Roman Emperor named Marcus.**
It's a Stoic practice to account daily for the ways in which you did or did not follow the cardinal virtues, since that (and not the rest of the world) is what lies within a Stoic's own ability.
I've been realizing lately that the part of my life where I can most clearly observe and cultivate patience, kindness, and courage at work in me is in fact my creative practice. So let's take these one by one, and maybe we'll learn something together.
I usually have at least one creative project going that is meant for my own growth or learning or play — something that stays focused on curiosity and not "work." All of these projects to date have been designed to last a year. Occasionally that gets to feeling ridiculous, especially when they involve doing literally the same thing every day.
So far, anyway, there's always been discernible value in sticking it out. I can't predict what that value might be, and there are absolutely no shortcuts: time in is the thing. Completing year-long projects is teaching me — is allowing me to practice — patience.
As are the fallow times. Between projects, when I'm tired or sick or too busy, I tend to get anxious. It's hard to shake that cultural+generational inculcation that we should always be producing. I'm learning, though. Non-linearly, of course; the lesson never endeth. This time last year, I finished a manuscript I was completely in love with, and immediately started panicking in the sudden vacuum. A year later, I'm similarly lacking for active, sustained creative project-work — in the midst of a pandemic, which my country is loudly Not Handling. I'm okay.
I mentioned "time in" a minute ago. This is a key teacher of patience in itself. I've learned — by doing — that the words will (probably) come.
Something similar applies to the specific process of writing a poem. Not poetry. A poem. Sometimes I write ten lines I love, that I know are on fire — and a concluding two lines that are... fine. I go back and I poke at those two lines (and the other ten, for good measure), as long as it takes to light them up, too. Once it took two years. An unknown number of times, it's never going to happen. "Things take the time they take."
Two very dear friends of mine have just moved to Canada. (They are married, and one of them is a Canadian citizen — which is why Canada let them in right now.) As one of these friends said the other day, when we sat masked, 10 feet away, and outdoors in 45-degree Fahrenheit sunshine to say goodbye: "I want to live someplace just a little more kind."
I cannot stop thinking about this. It's never occurred to me that America, as a whole, might not be kind. Nor that we might be; I've never thought about it at all. I was born here, I'm a citizen, and I've never lived anywhere else longer than a month. Which makes my understanding of our national character subject to a particular sort of innocent insider's bias. America is... America, and for the first time I'm thinking about what that means in daily practice.
I'm on a bit of a mission these days to bring more kindness to my own daily living. I can't change my country wholesale — I ought not to try if I could; I'd surely miss something critical. But I can shift myself. Creative practice is a useful place for an artist to actually do this.
I started something a couple of months ago called The PenPal Project. It has multiple goals, one of which is community. I know lots of people. I'm also 37, have lived in one metro nearly my whole adult life, and have a decided social point of view. So I want to make sure I have, and contribute to, authentic conversation with a wider circle of folks than I've grown used to.
Whatever you believe, wherever you're from, and whoever you voted for federally and locally in this last election, I think you and I can exchange mutually interesting letters. I think we have something good to say to each other. I think kindness is based on caring, and caring can be created more easily than you think: by just getting to know folks.
Of the three, courage is the virtue in which I feel most persistently deficient. How we need it, though! The practice of patience, and the practice of kindness, require also the practice of courage.
In 2015, I decided to do something about my fear of showing my writing to other people. "Fear" is an understatement, actually. I created my first public project, which I called TrailAWeek.
The number and quality of lessons that I have learned since then — about writing, about people, about online presence, about the more-than-human-world — is directly the result of gathering the courage to try something that felt, to me-then, strange and audacious.
And courage, it seems, begets courage. You learn that you will not die of embarrassment. You start to think — especially as your country's political situation deteriorates — about what you could die for, and what you are learning about whether and how you could meet that.
To make art is to stand for something. At the least, it commits your time, your talent, your thought and your conversation toward particular projects, which are never just frozen in paper or stone or pixels. They are living, and they are constantly shaping you back. Art narrows the field of possibility that is your public — and increasingly your private — face. It exposes you: to you, and to anyone else. You learn to be ready to meet that exposure. You learn to be curious about the fresh paths it might show you. You learn when fear is useful, and when it will only hold you back. You learn how to stand for other things than art.
My husband and some of my other friends are pretty into Dungeons & Dragons. They introduced me to the prototypical character alignment chart, where one axis is Lawful—Neutral—Chaotic, and the other is Good—Neutral—Evil. So your character can be Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, True Neutral (Neutral/Neutral), etc. Simplistic, right? But this very simplicity is a useful model for extrapolating to the complexities of actual living people, and how and why they choose to do what they do.
We got into a protracted discussion once, in which we argued each other into an understanding that's become a tenet of my daily life: there is no such thing as True Neutral. Neutral trends Evil.
What does this mean? Neutrality is the attempt not to take sides in a conflict — ideological or moral or physical or whatever. Rarely is a conflict evenly matched; there is nearly always a more powerful party, perhaps because one person is physically stronger (or more skilled at verbal persuasion). Perhaps one point of view has the law on its side, and the other is fighting for legal recognition. By choosing no side, the neutral party implicitly chooses to aid the side that already has more power. Doing nothing is a vote for the status quo. And the status quo — because power corrupts, and corruption fears justice — trends evil.***
Your job, as an artist, is to resist evil. I realize this is a controversial statement. Remember, I have learned some hills I'm willing to die on, figuratively and also possibly otherwise. Your job, as an artist, is unequivocally to resist evil, and to co-create good.
Paying attention to the virtues of your regular creative practice is one way to learn how to resist evil and work towards good. Giving some thought to the virtues you want to cultivate****, and how you might practice or explore them in your art, sets you up with solid coordinates. Once you know what those are, you might find they're far away, over difficult terrain. But you've got a map: your art.
I've found that having specific virtues to navigate by gives my art a better chance of spotting neutrality, interrogating its intentions, and bending it toward good. Which teaches me how to pay attention and uplift the good in the rest of my life, too.
I'm going to mess up, my friends. Maybe every day. Working hard to find a thing does not necessarily deliver it into our hands.
There's a walk tomorrow morning, though. There's always the chance to step under the open sky and remind myself: Patience. Kindness. Courage.
*The more usual translation of the cardinal Stoic virtues is Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation. Wisdom and Justice are part and parcel of spending enough time with Patience and Kindness, as far as I'm concerned, and I end up kind of lumping Moderation in with Patience. Translation! It's neither exact nor simple, between languages or between minds!
**At one point, Marcus references "poetry, and other such lapses of taste," and it makes me laugh at both of us every time.
***Justice in the deepest sense, which is not to be mistaken for mere adherence to Law.
****They don't have to be Stoic virutes. Equity is a fine one, for example. Simplicity. Truthfulness. Conscientiousness. Et cetera. You probably already know what you value. If not, ask yourself what you admire, what you wish you could be like. You probably can.