I saw this on facebook today and it seemed to lock into place something I have been thinking about this week.
I find myself nearly every week telling at least one hurting teenager that it does get better. That these are definitely not “the best years of your life” for everyone. I hated high school. Even college was a struggle. But I love my life now. Every year, things got better.
Except that, well, maybe they didn’t.
I saw a quote going around instagram or twitter or facebook – I don’t remember. And I don’t remember to whom it had been attributed either – as if that matters when it winds up as a meme on instagram or twitter or facebook. We all know Meryl Streep said it.
Basically, the quote was about how life doesn’t get better; we get better at handling it.
I’ve been lying to my students. Things get increasingly complicated as we grow up. The choices we make are more complex. We no longer only have parents and friends to consider, but children and careers, when making plans for our future, when deciding whether to post that photo on instagram or twitter or facebook.
There are bills. And insurance. And taxes. Pension plans and adult diapers. And office politics are as nasty as playground politics.
I’m not going to lie to my students anymore. I don’t think it helps them to think that they really are on the receiving end of all the world’s meanness. They aren’t. They are learning to deal with their little share of it. They’re learning to do it better.
“When works of art become commodities and nothing else, when every endeavor becomes “creative” and everybody “a creative,” then art sinks back to craft and artists back to artisans—a word that, in its adjectival form, at least, is newly popular again. Artisanal pickles, artisanal poems: what’s the difference, after all? So “art” itself may disappear: art as Art, that old high thing. Which—unless, like me, you think we need a vessel for our inner life—is nothing much to mourn.” (William Deresiewicz.)
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that I wrote poetry before Facebook, before the internet. What drove me? I’d never actually met a writer. I had no concept of what the future could be. No ambitions for fame, or a textbook footnote.
But, at 15, I wasn’t spilling my hormones on the page in automatic writing in an effort to express myself, I was striving to emulate St. Vincent Millay, to express that something that was not unique. I figured that was the point of writing: the attempt to connect to other people by finding, revealing, fashioning through mimesis, this common ground: See? You see this, right? This is true.
Maybe I wrote because I was lonely.
A form of necromancy, since I didn’t let anyone read what I wrote.
At any rate, I mentioned this to a colleague a few days ago: my concept of the artist as someone who is able to present the essence of being human to others; in this way, a visionary and a guide, a kind of midwife to the experience of being more than an individual in the world.
She said she thought that was the one of the most arrogant things she’d ever heard: artists having special talents – “Everyone can be an artist.”
But how is my idea more arrogant that believing that every individual, if she pays close enough attention to her own experience, has something worth sharing with others?
Something that other people should pay her for (time is money, after all)? If all expression is of equal worth, isn’t all expression equally worthless?
How is it that we find ourselves in an economy that assumes it is a viable model to compensate each other for our unbridled (read: undisciplined) self-expression?
Who is the new underclass?
I cringe when I read/hear the term “Creatives”, which implies that, not only is it pompous to strive to be an artist/master, but that some people aren’t creative. Oscar Wilde, who held that no everyone had the ability to appreciate art, would be proud.
Or, in a more generous vein: some people aren’t ambitious enough to harness their creativity and instead, choose to work in factories or other mundane jobs that don’t involve following their dream, or leading a herd to do the same.
Who is washing the toilets at these motivational conventions?
To be very honest, “creatives” in my mind are people skilled at manipulating the market – they can actually (often) bypass excellence and sell their wares; in some cases, they can take the absence of a “ware” and turn it into income. I am not saying they don’t deserve their paychecks. These people have skills.
It seems to me, that on a very basic level, the new measure of the artist with a little A, the “creative”, is the total dominance of the familiar measure of P.T. Barnum’s capitalism. Perceived value. Perceived results of perceived “labor”? Who says we live in an age devoid of the mystical? The momentary feel-good vibe they provide has value. I pay for that, too.
The figure left in the photo: Someone made that. Some pre-Dynastastic Abyssinian.
Someone knew those heavy breasts. Those curves. That hollowed-torso posture. I know those things, too. Recognize them. But I can’t share that knowledge by carving a figure from bone.
That artist/artisan lived, and breathed, and carved, and made a bridge from then to now. She wasn’t the only person living then. There’s no reason to think that she was among the more interesting of the people living then, the most intelligent, the most clever.
But she built the bridge: the object, conduit, magic portal that made this connection. Through some fluke of archaeology, this anonymous bit of humanity endured. Something in it transcends historical and cultural context.
This recognition I experience, is it just another kind of feel-good vibe? Nothing more? Is context vs. transcending context irrelevant/illusionary?
Is this Art? art? What is it worth? (Is it Branded? A Rembrandt? A Rembrandt’s pupil?)
I suppose the British Museum as a specific sum in mind. For insurance purposes.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my PhD.: my pursuit of excellence. About what a destructive time it was, and how I am still working to heal. How, on some days, I can’t remember why I write. Wondering if all this frustration flows from envy, because I am not one of the “creatives”; if I’m still a necromancer at heart –
Half-in-love with Mr. Wilde.
Because I’m half-in-love with the book on my shelf.
*And, by the way, I am all for artisan pickles. I can’t make those either.
I once went to London to attend a “master class” by a famous writer. It was actually a lecture in a room with 200 or so folding chairs. When the writer was finished talking about her dog and her cottage in the woods, she opened the floor for questions. Someone asked, “What kind of pen do you use?”
The magic pen. The magic paper, computer program, time of day, mantra or tea. Yes, I grew up watching Bewitched, too. Longing for the short cut, the magic wiggle. Waiting for the fairy godmother, or the red shoes that will make me famous before they kill me.
I had an epiphany in that moment, as banal as an acknowledgement of the reality of one’s own mortality… or a slogan: just do it. But like anyone saved on Sunday, drunk on Tuesday, part of me continued to look for the portal to the muses – a one-night stand start to a long term relationship.
Good things take time.
Five years ago I sort of climbed out in front of my life and started to take charge. I realised that if you’re ticking that 46 and over box on the survey, your fairy godmother probably isn’t coming.
I started simplifying my life. Making room. Choosing.
A few years ago, a good friend told me about her own quest to simplify: to own one beautiful hairbrush; one exquisite pen. She inspired me. I’ve been looking for the one pen. The magic pen.
I bought a gorgeous pen when I visited her this summer. Handmade. Looks like the sea. But the ink flows unevenly. I don’t use it when I write every morning. It just sits on the desk looking pretty.
I steal pens. I tend to borrow them and walk off with them. I have a callous on my left second finger from writing. My hand is formed to writing utensils. Yesterday, when I cleaned my nightstand, I found 9 pens in the drawer. Most of them completely unfamiliar. Things I “borrowed” from students or colleagues, surely. Pens migrate from school and back again, hitching between the pages of textbooks and notebooks.
But last week I realised the school is stocking the supply room with different pens. Thin, scrawny pens.
I had no idea I was so accustomed to the cheap blue pens I’ve been using for years. I didn’t realise I’d been using the same pen every morning the past year. Things happen when you don’t notice them. Habits form.
I had to borrow a car to drive out to the office supply store to buy my own box of pens. The cheap, plastic pens that the school no longer supplies.
My one pen.
This sucks. I really wanted my one pen to be exquisite.
A few years ago, over a long lunch, a friend was telling me about his morning – about driving to work. He was stuck in traffic, and felt himself getting angrier and angrier. Twisting himself in knots, and becoming increasingly upset about how his day was off to a lousy start.
Then the ambulance passed by.
His story still helps me put my own frustrations in perspective. I keep his story in my head like a post-it note on the door to the room where petty annoyances go to fester. It works for me surprisingly often. I’ve been able to turn daily inconveniences into a practice of gratitude: a reminder of what goes right, what works out in time, and what is ultimately important.
One of the great things about getting older is that lessons actually begin to take hold. This summer I was standing in line at a grocery store and watching the woman in front of me lash out at the cashier. Then at her elderly companion. But I was having a good day, so I could take a step back and I realised that it must hurt to be her. I’m sure I’ve been her. And just few years ago I would have made a snarky remark – if not to her – then to the cashier to let him know I was “on his side” of the conflict. I would have helped define the drama. Made a scene. Created a real-world narrative that would have involved two sides. His and hers. But this was on her. I let it be with her.
I smiled at the woman as she left, smiled at the cashier, and told him it was a pretty day outside. I said I hoped his day improved, and that he would be able get out to enjoy the sunshine.
I have no idea what this woman’s story really was. But I chose to assume that she was under stress. Maybe she’d just come from the doctor with very bad news. Maybe the elderly companion was her Alzheimer’s-stricken father, who had just beaten her mother, who was now in the hospital.
(I have always had an active imagination, and can quickly tweeze out an intricate drama.)
I seriously doubt that these are the kind of compassionate thoughts that Buddhists want us to have when we are focusing on loving kindness for all people. I mean, I see that it is almost fantasising as a form of revenge. Not even “almost”. It is.
I haven’t been able to let go of this woman. Not like I should. But at least I haven’t held on to the anger.
This is where I am right now in my spiritual development. Working from the outside, in.
Trying to put good into the real world. And keeping the rest of it to myself, as fiction.