Everything that has a beginning has an end

Paul Caponigro’s Sacred Calling

(All photos by Paul Caponigro)

“I think the first step is the realization that each of us has [a calling]. And then we must look back over our lives and look at some of the accidents and curiosities and oddities and troubles and sicknesses and begin to see more in those things than we saw before. It raises questions, so that when peculiar little accidents happen, you ask whether there is something else at work in your life. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an out-of-body experience during surgery, or the sort of high-level magic that the new age hopes to press on us. It’s more a sensitivity, such as a person living in a tribal culture would have: the concept that there are other forces at work. A more reverential way of living.” – James Hillman

Hillman in The Soul’s Code fleshes out the idea of the acorn theory or acorn myth. This is the idea that each of us has within us the kernel of a calling, a gift, a way of being that grows into maturity much like an acorn grows into an oak. It is an effort to explain what drives each of us to live the lives we feel compelled to live beyond the deterministic boundaries of genetics or social conditioning. In his book he gives examples of how this can be seen in the lives of several well known public figures like Judy Garland or Martin Scorcese.

Paul Caponigro, who would become an accomplished musician and photographer, as a child began to exhibit clues as to what this ‘calling’ would look like for him. Caponigro – “My father’s brother was a pianist. And so when we went to visit the relatives, I could not wait until Dad brought us to Uncle Jimmy’s. And he’d open the door and greet us, and I would run right through his legs – I was quite small – and sit at the piano, knowing he would play eventually. And so I’d wait until he played. I couldn’t wait to hear it, you know, because the piano meant something. This is age 3, 4, 5, thereabouts. I knew there was something in the piano for me.”

Sometimes a mentor appears, as in the story of the Hero’s Journey, to help guide or to give one tools so that you will succeed on your mission. Sometimes this mentor is a parent. Many times it is a teacher, as Hillman recounts in the lives of James Baldwin or Truman Capote. Caponigro remembers one man who noticed his latent talent. Regarding his parents,”They were very hard-working peasant types. And it was more [of] keeping a family together and making a living. There wasn’t enough time and space for them to look a little bit deeper, you know. It just was a major outer structure they were trying to keep together. And they did a fabulous job. They took care of us. They gave us love. They gave us a house to live in. You know, I mean, they really did well. But the subtler things of seeing a little deeper, that was seen by Arthur Gavin, who lived across the street with the principal of the high school. They eventually married. He was the art director for that city, the city of Revere. And he caught on that there was something going on with me. And he would feed me paper and colored crayons and pencils and inks and, you know, tell me to have a good time. And he’d do it in front of my mother, who didn’t understand what was going on, wouldn’t have seen that I had an artistic nature, and that it was supposed to have an outlet. So he caught on that there was something going on, and he tried to help my artistic nature.”

This inner calling can sometimes be so strong that it can filter out other responsibilities. What society deems successful can, to this calling, be seen as a failure (or vice versa), or at the least a major conflict. Caponigro – “I was poking around the photo supply stores, and I’d look in the shop windows. I’d go in and just look at things…in those early years, I was not interested in school. I did not want to do the work…I…could not wait for the bell to ring to dismiss us, and I would head out, not go home but go straight to the ocean, which was very close by, or the woods, and hang out there and listen to the birds and watch the waves come in and pick up shells. At an early age, I realized nature was my teacher. I didn’t want all the reading and arithmetic. I couldn’t give it my interest. So nature was really my teacher all through school, up to must have been the eighth grade. At which point I remember coming back from one of my forays to the sea – – – I remember coming back from being in nature, picking up some shells, get some stones. And I was passing right through the school yard where I was going to school, on the football field. And I was stopped dead with a realization: I had to get a camera and photograph this stuff that I see out there in nature…”

Caponigro discovered that his emotional reaction to certain kinds of music or to what he saw in nature was going to be his guide. “[It is] as if the cosmos itself arranged that I would not be a good student in school…in order that the emotional realm that I worked with would flourish and develop…I saw it as a gift that I did not do well in school… in that the excessive intellectual activity subdued my emotional activity. I saw that my emotional activity could get fed and would function quite easily, and was very perceptive that my emotions would do the perceiving. When that happened and I got information, I always felt confident about what that information was…”

At one point he became aware of who he was and what he wanted to do. “In the same way that I got this burst that said, get a camera and photograph what you’re seeing and what you’re working with…In the same way – it was at the age of 11 or thereabouts – I was walking the streets alone. Came from the center of town to go home. And I remember exactly the corner that I turned to get up the street. And again, this burst of something came in and said, oh, my God. I’m an artist. I recognized that I was an artist. And I had a double kind of whammy which said, what a wonderful thing and what a responsibility, the two of them simultaneously. I go, wow. What am I going to do with this? I’m an artist.”

So the choice becomes a question of what is this life going to look like. How does one honor the gift one has been given. How do you stay true to the calling. Caponigro – “So it didn’t take too long for me to realize, no. You know, I don’t want to go through what these concert pianists go through. Sure, I’d love to play at Carnegie Hall, and I’d love to thrill a big audience, and that would all be great. And to this day, I could still think of doing that. But I realized that that turning of the corner when I was 11 years old and saying, my God, I’m an artist, and the other half that said, it’s a responsibility, not merely a joy, and that part really was connected to the idea that art was a sacred act. It wasn’t until I had studied more and more of the Egyptian art and early ancient works in the museums, and certain of the modern pieces that you could tell were permeated with a man’s soul and real being – it wasn’t until then that I thought, my God, yes. This is – this could be a man’s religion. It did not have to be the organized religion of those structures and burning candles and incense and the rituals and the ceremonies. This could be a path to sacred experience.”

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4 responses

  1. “[It is] as if the cosmos itself arranged that I would not be a good student in school…in order that the emotional realm that I worked with would flourish and develop…I saw it as a gift that I did not do well in school… in that the excessive intellectual activity subdued my emotional activity. I saw that my emotional activity could get fed and would function quite easily, and was very perceptive that my emotions would do the perceiving. When that happened and I got information, I always felt confident about what that information was…”

    There in lies the story of my life. I played hooky excessively because I felt that school drained the life out of me and I could not relate easily to the other kids. It took many years and a willingness to suffer the pain of admitting I had “followed the wrong god home,” until I felt true to what calls me, which is not so much one particular thing, but living, guided by the invisibles, whose insights come and go as they will, but create a thread in which I follow, and which keep me hanging on.

    Thank you for this! Very lovely photos and story of Caponigros’ life. I agree with him that confidence is very informing when locating the genuis.
    Debra

    Like

    August 26, 2013 at 4:04 am

    • Thank you Debra for sharing that. I am glad this story resonates with yours. Caponigro has become a touch-stone for me in how he describes how his emotional intelligence became his guide. I think he and I are ‘wired’ (hate to use that word) in a similar fashion but I did not always understand it or pay attention to it. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help me re-discover the invisible thread you refer to.

      Like

      August 26, 2013 at 11:07 am

      • Yes, isn’t it amazing how writing and reading others stories and inspirations can serve as our guides?
        I am very glad you’re sharing your gifts here with us.

        Like

        August 26, 2013 at 2:30 pm

      • I am honored. Thank you!

        Like

        August 26, 2013 at 4:39 pm

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