On Beauty, Genius, and Paying Attention: Tim Williams Got Me Through So Much

“Morning of the Magicians”
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shitao/3197160727/in/set-72157625031441773

From about 1993 through 2000 I worked as best I could on my first novel. I am deeply indebted to nearly 20 friends and colleagues who read various drafts over that period.

From 2000 through 2005 I tried to get agents and publishers to pay attention to my insane story — best described as a psychedelic mystery about music and consciousness. I came close a couple times, but no one took me on. After over 100 rejection letters and cards I packed it in and tried to focus on my day job (environmental consulting). I wrote my friend Paula Silici, “That’s it. I’m done. No more writing. What a waste of time. How could I have done that to myself?”

I went on with my life. My mom died in 2007. My oldest son graduated from college in 2010, the same year my second oldest son was a first round draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies out of high school.  And Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad and the iBook Store which became true competition for Amazon’s Kindle system. The other thing that happened in 2010 was that my youngest son was old enough to tell me what he thought of me, which amounts to, “Dad, I thought you were a writer. Why’d you quit?”
“Missouri River Above Easely”
By Thanksgiving of 2010 my wife and I began to research the whole indie author scene, and by June of 2011 I was back at work, ever so gently, on my novel. I knew it needed some modernizing. I also wanted to see what would turn up if I Googled places like Rocheport and Easely, Missouri near where my novel takes place. I wasn’t feeling inspired. I was really just going through the motions, looking, inquiring, diving as deep as I could in search of something…I didn’t know…just something to pull me in again where that thing they call MoJo is. I was looking for the keys. I needed to start the engine up again.
That’s when I stumbled upon Tim Williams’ artwork — on Flickr of all places. The first piece I found was called “Yahweh’s Bluffs in Rocheport Missouri.” The next was called “Missouri River Above Easely.” These paintings of Missouri completely flipped me out. I recall a Sunday afternoon just randomly looking at the sets that the artist had posted. I had no idea who he was. And at that time I wasn’t really very mindful of pursuing the brilliant talent behind the art. I didn’t even pay attention to the fact that The Artist Tim Williams went by the name of Shitao (which is such a great Buddhist name!).
“An Almost made Up Poem (Self-portrait)”
Nope. I didn’t pay attention to much, except that this work had illuminated the MoJo machine I’d lost inside myself. That art work had somehow been in my mind as I wrote the insane story of The Redhouse Gang where Elvis, Jesse James, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and so many others still lived. I needed to get back to the story I’d given so much of my mind to for so many years.
And I did. It took another year and a life-changing realization that I had to leave my 30-year career as a consultant on a hook somewhere so that I could fully focus on writing fiction, but I published Beyond the Will of God as an ebook in June of 2012 and then as a paperback (pbook) on July 4th.
A month later, after a lot of sliding up and down the book marketing learning curve, I had time to reflect on what I’d done. Rather quickly, I recalled the paintings that had started me down that last bit of road I needed to travel to get to where I am today. It sucks being 54. I couldn’t remember the artist’s name. I couldn’t remember the web address for those paintings. I spent a whole day trying to triangulate and Google my way back in time.
“When night becomes day…the ride of Rhodopis”
Eventually, my hard and essentially random desperate typing paid off. I found the Yahweh Bluff painting again. From there I backed into all of the oils and water colors in Shitao Tim Williams’ Flickr photo sets again. And this time (maybe because I am 54 and not 53) I made sure I bookmarked the land I found myself in. I also noted Tim’s contact info and started digging. I wanted to track down his email address. It took some guesswork and luck, but I eventually stumbled into his Tumblr account. And then I moved to FaceBook and found him fairly easily.
Tim lived just outside of Columbia where the novel takes place. He was a devout Buddhist and highly respected. His artwork was part of several online music and poetry videos. I read up and down his FaceBook wall. I wanted to leave him a message and tell him how important his work was to me. It was so important. It changed my life.
So I read up and down Tim’s wall. We were alike in many ways although he was older than me. His Tumblr art was always accompanied by spare but beautiful poetry he admired. He was focused on Oriental principles a lot in that Tumblr work. I liked that. I never had that kind of discipline. I should have.
I read up and down, and then I stopped.
Tim’s wife had posted on his wall in the spring that he had died unexpectedly on December 19, 2011. I had just read a Tumblr entry of his from December 18. His birthday was February 26, 1953. Mine is February 26, 1958. I do not know the details of Tim’s passing. It hardly matters. He is gone and I never got to tell him what his work meant to me…and what meeting him would mean to me.
Yahweh’s Bluffs in Rocheport Missouri
An unattributed poem was posted at that last Tumblr entry:

Since entering the mountain,
too dried out and emaciated
Frosty cold over the snow
After having a twinkling of revelation
with impassioned eyes
Why then do you want
to come back to the world?

It would have been easy to pay attention on that day that those paintings so inspired me. My feet were lit up by Tim’s swirling oily flaming dimension. I would have done well to send a quick note to the artist as I watched my legs and torso catch fire. That’s what they were doing. But I wasn’t paying attention. I was self-absorbed and rather over-pleased with my new mental state. I thought it was mine — that mental state. I didn’t understand…I do now.
I also know the importance of paying attention. It’s not easy. We slide and glide and twist and turn through images on the screen and the smell of audio smoking in our brains. Paying attention is hard because the object is to look for what matters. But there’s so much that doesn’t matter. If you’re not careful, like me, you forget to pay attention, and you miss what matters. Sometimes that just drifts away and you never remember what might have been. But sometimes, like me, you tumble backwards and get lucky, you pay attention just enough. Only I wasn’t quite lucky enough, was I?
I originally thought of this as one of those tragic lost opportunities that is a hard slap on the back. But we are all trained to forget lost opportunities and hard slaps on the back. Otherwise, life would be nothing but a series of disappointments and regrets. There are always lost opportunities. I still appreciate Tim’s work — and his spirit and what his presence in my life (however ephemeral) taught me about paying attention. But there’s something more there, too. The strange connection I fell into when first I saw Yahweh’s Bluffs was what all this art stuff is about — paintings, stories, music, plays, sculpture — it’s all connected when you pay attention and you let your mind do what it wants to do and say what it wants to say. It’s why we feel that our best work is coming through us, and why art has the power it does in this world. That’s something most people forget. Tim didn’t. Now I won’t either. Pay attention when your feet light up and the flames start flashing up your legs. Be consumed by the fire. It is you, within, and it is the rest of us too. We are all in this together.
Thank you Tim. You did more than you’ll ever know.
To see the full set of Shitao’s photo images of his paintings, go HERE.
To check out his Tumblr page, go HERE

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