The Blessing Way

Paul LANG and l to r David, Richard and Michael Lang

On the path to becoming an artist you look at thousands of images and a part of that curriculum is to parse the meaning of a sculpture a painting, a photograph. Works of art don’t mean something discrete, the philosopher Wittgenstein says “The meaning is in the use.” I’m using this photograph to draw the lines of a map I call…

The Blessing Way.

It feels right that this photograph is in the form of a pyramid. At the peak is Paul, his arms embracing three of his grandchildren;  a vision of protection. This is exactly what it felt like being in the circle of his blessing. It was a strong structure to grow up in. We felt his adventurous spirit when he told the story of his migration (“on the ship to America, while the other boys played cards, I was studying English”) the stories of making a business in the face of systemic anti-semitism (“every once in a while you have to let the other guy win”),and as a willing participant to live a life of pleasure—(“she was as beautiful as perfume smells” describing his first wife). All of it on his terms, working hard to create a fortress of wealth.                                                                                                                                 

Once established in Kankakee he became a world traveller, and on returning to his town of Kvarsk, Lithuania he began the process of bringing those he cared for out of the Nazi mayhem. His home town town of Kvarsk is memoralized at the Holocaust Museum, written in gold as one of those towns wiped out of all Jews by the Nazi horror. This man lived The Blessing Way.

I like the notion of the blessing way—a life path geared to living the highest value as an idea of a way of life. I first heard about the Navajo version in my comparative Religion 101 class as a college freshman. It meshes pretty seamlessly with the ethical lean of Judiaism. The “Blessing Way” is a Navajo idea about the three life paths one can travel to live in a way to create a life of serving the highest values of being human… And, whether true to the Navajo form or not, it sparked me to thinking about growing up with Paul Lang hovering over us all as a protective spirt. He traveled a great journey to get here and I am massively grateful he did.

To be on The Blessing Way is to choose from three paths—The Warrior Way, The Healing Way and The Beauty Way. The kid on the left is David Lang (Yale ’66) who went the Healing Way; he’s a surgeon today, by all accounts supremely dedicated and supremely competent. Next to him is Michael Lang (Harvard ’66). He’s educated as a lawyer, one of our modern-day Warriors. Mike gave up that legal battlefield and settled on a career as a mediator. In fact, he began the first graduate program in mediation—a warrior/peacemaker. He’s written a couple of books on the subject. The boy in black is me, looking a bit sullen and it turned out I was the kid on the playground off by himself daydreaming; not sad but happy to drift into thoughts of what, for example, this stick meant to that rock lying on the playground. Happy at home to look into my microscope; gazeing away for hours at a hair or some little bug-let watching it become a ravaging monster in my sci-fi addled mind. A dime at 100 power is a landscape worthy of a Trailways Bus tour into the canyons of a ten-cent piece—what a sense of space! I liked that a lot, more than watching the arc of a thrown ball or trying to kick or hit at something on the loose needing control—a supreme bore, and if that little guy in black in his gangster stance was against anything, it was against being bored.

To be in a spin-drift gaze, led me to nature and the plants and animals of an ecosystem, a term I first heard in 1960 being a participant in a summer-long study of a midwestern creek-bed. We were to find all the creatures in this “ecosystem” (a newly coined term). What it was like to drift into the search and the thoughts that arose out of the search; that was not boring. It was living in a waking dream —  it’s been my constant pleasure. Which it turns out is exactly what I am doing here. The blessing way of that activity is that you want to draw people into a kind of circle, a circle of the pleasure you feel when you find meaning. This idea about art is both a puzzle and the pleasure of finding the solution to that puzzle. Here, a solution rising out of the creation of the problem. That seems right to me and at the same time a bit pretentious. Can’t help myself; I call this Art Mind.

It’s Art Mind, The Beauty Way, that made a difference to me since the beginning. Art Mind is a state of curiosity. A desire to peel open the layers of how we perceive reality, which is exactly what this essay is about, as I parse this photograph. If Art were about the products of art making it would soon have faded from my interest. Don’t get me wrong here, I have always loved making stuff and that is certainly a part of Art Mind— in that the products one makes are like the hand-off baton in a relay race. But it’s never been about the stuff. The search for Art Mind has led me to take some detours, some fruitful some dead ends. The search as led me to the prehistoric caves in France a couple of times, to temple ceremonies in Bali, two trips to the Galapagos, a three week safari to East Africa, countless visits to the museums holding the Western Canon, but mostly the daily practice of wrestling with Art Mind on The Beauty Way path in my studio. When I told Paul about my career path, that medicine or law wouldn’t be on the curriculum, he backed away as if retreating from a catching disease. But I made my own way helping others to achieve their art ambitions, keeping true to my own aspirations as well. I made a business of helping realize the visions of hundreds of artists.

Some of the people saved from Kvarsk circa 1940

As a coda I offer this thinking about the fortress of wealth my grandfather made for his family. The fortress I offer to my family comes in the exemplifying of what it means to be a creative person. This reminds me of a story: Moishe is walking home from Saturday prayers—of course walking, it’s Saturday. He is struck by a bicycle and knocked to the pavement. A stranger offers the comfort of his coat tucked under his head, “Sir,” he says, “Are you comfortable?” Moishe says, “Oh, I make a living.”

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