Tuesday, September 1, 2009

finding equilibrium

all night long listening to the winds wandering through the streets.
all night long listening to this house creaking and cracking.
all night long listening to the sound of my own thinking.

thinking about the place of work in my life.

sleep is not an option.

how to waken on my own terms?

i came across this image years ago - it's familiar to many who love impressionist art. entitled "a bar at the folies bergere" it is the work of edouard manet alternately reviled and revered for his depictions of nineteenth-century parisian life.

"suzon stands alone in a crowded room. the look on her face is detached, melancholy, distracted from her job serving at the bar in the vast crowded room reflected in the glass behind her. there is a locket around her neck that is a token of another life, a love a long way from this job.

this is an unusual portrait because it is of someone at work, and someone who to our eyes is defined by her work and is profoundly unhappy with it. she is alienated from her surroundings, as if there is a glass pane between her and everyone else in the room - the drinkers, chatters-up, lovers, liars, thieves and businessmen.

she has both hands firmly on the bar as if she needs to touch something solid, in case she should be carried away by the vortex of light and shapes reflected in the mirror.

there is no attempt to make the image cohere: there is, as contemporary critics pointed out, an inconsistency to the relationship between the reflections in the mirror and the real things.

the dislocation of suzon's world is deliberate. paris is a hall of mirrors where suzon floats helplessly, clinging to her bar."
(excerpted from an article by jonathon jones in the guardian)

it is this dislocation and incoherence that reaches out from the painting to echo once again the question that revolved in my head throughout the night. how can i make sense of my daily work in my life? what place and purpose does it hold in allowing me to develop both my inner and outer life?

an answer . . . .

"one’s career in life"

"what is truly useful is to be able to accept that one’s limitations in outer life can act as a hindrance to engaging in the search. it’s very hard to accept this, but i can tell you that this acceptance can give an extraordinary impulse for development to both the inner and the outer life.

as to the question of what kind of work to choose, there is no ready-made answer. it depends. a person should examine the situation and consider why he might decide to do this or that. but on the whole it can be said that we need a relationship with the outer world. we need to find something to do that we care about. we need to be appreciated, we need to feel useful, to feel that what we do has a value.

it is not an easy challenge in a society which is not made for this inner work, which doesn’t understand anything about it, where people spend all their energy on their careers. so how to manage?

those who really accept the challenge will have to find a way to their own equilibrium. they will have to discover how to obtain what they want and to keep enough time and energy and emotional freedom for their inner search. they will become wiser, more apt. and they will develop abilities which have been lying dormant in them.

but an individual who seeks to develop his life capacities must be sure to keep in his mind and in his feelings the reason for which he is doing this. he must not allow himself to be devoured by his efforts to improve his outer life. in this, he will also be better able to understand his fellow human beings, because he himself will always be feeling tempted by life, tempted to go further and further in that direction. and if he goes too far, life will swallow him up, because life is like that. it’s always pressing us to give more to it.

in anything we do, we must never forget our aim, our central, essential value: to return again and again to this inner presence which opens us to a broader dimension.

we see from all we have said that this work has to do with living, an art of living with oneself, with opposite tendencies—those of our automatism and those which will open us to another dimension and create a harmony, a balance, and a better functioning of the whole of our nature".

pauline de dampierre


  1. and as i too have spent this same day in a similar way...

    and you have so beautifully found the words to describe it

    Thankyou x

  2. hi nolyposh - it's such a dilemma and i know we're not the only ones to experience it or to comment on it. how to find something that pays the bills without exacting too high a price from our essential selves? there's lots about my work as a teacher that takes care of that but there are features of the work that are difficult to reconcile. thanks so much fro visiting. have a peaceful day.

  3. It's a question everyone must answer in their own way. For many of us, what we do to earn money cannot be equated with what gives us value deep down. This creates a schism in which we must separate that part of our lives from the rest, yet without that separation causing us (or society) damage - a great challenge.

    This is one of my favorite paintings. When we look at that painting we are caught in her frozen stare; she stares at us, and yet we identify with her at the same time.

  4. hello mark, thanks for your insightful comment. i see waht you say and also i feel the need to connect my work to something of value. a value that is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. yes, each of us answers this dilemma in our way. too true.
    your take on the woman in the painting resonates also - i look through her eyes. selling something. but not her soul. have a peaceful day. steven

  5. Found you on Nolly's spot. Your blog is not the usual I run into, but one I find quite stimulating. I love that painting too. I am an old lady, just started to study painting and of course delved into the history a bit. I choose to be a nurse, thinking all the things about service to others. Imagine my disappointment, when I studied psych nursing, most nurses are co-dependent. Somebodies gotta do it.

  6. hello queenmothermamaw! thank you for paying a visit!!! your final comment about nurses made me laugh - there's an element of that in my own profession - teaching. oh what to do what to do?!!!!! as you say - "somebody's got to do it!!" lovely. steven

  7. Hi Steven~ I've been a teacher, and I've been (and am still) a volunteer at my church. I get so much joy from helping people in need that I can understand people like Albert Schweitzer making it their life's work. Teaching was not so clear for me; it has an up-and-down quality that leaves you in despair or happiness, only to buld again the next day. To put it another way: I would rather go to Harlem in the early morning, help set up the food stand, and serve food to a line of vagrants than walk into a classroom full of fifth-graders and make chocolate mousse as the French lesson of the day and not finding the group totally engaged.

  8. hi margaret, thanks for this comment. i connect to your experience. there is an awful lot of up and down to the work of teaching. the learning i'm able to take from the process is about moving on regardless, escaping the nature of the moment as an emotional piece and seeing how i can learn from it and how my students can learn from it. hard hard work. being in the moment as much as possible despite all the efforts of the world (and often my own needs)!!! have a peaceful evening. steven