— Screw it. I dig up this saved draft, this language from some months ago I’d been reticent to share but now it’s wrapping its arms around a sleepless night and my travel bug, that escapist impulse to jump in a car, on a plane, a train, a boat, anything. It’s just got to be said. So, here. It’s October. All that really needs to escape is that toxic tendency toward self-censorship. —
Writing is still elusive. Writing involves so many organizational challenges I often can’t handle it without also making visual art. Words have felt like pressure cookers, images like rivers. It’s said that words are limited and inadequate – but which mode of expression isn’t?
Which is why writing, too, sometimes happens by surprise in the midst of creating art, out of a sudden desperation or exasperation that just can’t be expressed immediately enough without switching mediums and turning to words. Out of recognition that there’s things that pictures just can’t do, can’t show the same way.
Then there’s the times none of it seems to satisfy. The moment’s too raw so the only thing to do is keep going. With the current project, with any project. It might make you feel better, or just more like crap but you don’t stop. I feel strangely serene now in the face of intensity. Its presence doesn’t scare me as it once did. As if my brain partitioned into two coexisting sides of reality, dark and peaceful.
I imagine some of the reactions and opinions each piece could incite and retrain myself to believe the one truth I can count on which is that it really doesn’t matter anymore, it matters less and less.
Mixing beige paint in my room and laying it over black I contemplate my favorite person to be with. Wanting this man is futile. Will you leave once again and call me months from now, and what will I say then? No more? I love you?
An inescapable fact, love. Even the worst of you could not make me cold for long. I want out of here, too. Out of all of it. It’s the middle of the night.
I toss this whole situation into question. My job, my expensive life here in Oakland. What am I doing?
This art. These photographs. This writing. How much could I sacrifice to be able to do this all the time, nothing but this for as long as it takes? Almost everything, I’m thinking.
What if I just said, everything? What would everything look like?
It’s one of those mornings when I’m on the road again in my head. Packing sleeping bags in the cold mountain air. Blowing steam off my coffee in a circle of other travelers. Packing up to leave, pulling on heavy boots. Twelve thousand feet above sea level. Hungry but exhilarated.
It’s easy to forget the struggle: what it takes to choose the adventure over the safe. To get to those places and exist in them longer-term is mostly a matter of willingness to abandon fear, to detach from whatever status or position achieved, and then there’s the objects of our affections to be suspended or let go of. An apartment, a car, a job, a semester, a social circle, a mentality, an ideology, a lover, a life dependent upon the comforts of the known. Easier done when you have less to lose, but even then most will naturally balk.
For me, all this was nothing compared to what it took to return. To reintegrate back into a culture built on and fascinated by the concept of freedom, yet embracing a type of freedom warped by comparison to the freedom you’ve just experienced on the road. A freedom that almost looks like imprisonment – a rat race. Yet this is the same rat race that gave you the road, the resources and privilege to earn it by struggle. You yourself, you realize, love the rat race too. Each day suppressing true feeling, true significance in order to keep up. From time to time you wholly accept its superficial qualifications and you strive to reflect them, become them. You get off on it, at least one small part of you feels this is natural. Until the day that you just can’t take it anymore. And then you turn to the few people whom you’ve ever really loved, in your mind. You turn to the waves, the trees, the birds. Sand, rivers, the clouds. Tiny lights flickering in the shadows.
I’ve been making these haiku banners or posters or whatever you want to call them. This one feels a bit over the edge compared to the others – but I know where to take my misfits. More of these on my instagram here.
Rain. Blue-grey-violet light filling the room. It’s late, 10:45 am. Waking to dreams of the one I’d loved the most until finally many years later I didn’t – not that same way, pointing at a studio apartment for rent in the paper. A large hexagon shaped space with beige floors in the photo, possibly carpet but nice, facing the street through bay windows. I wanted to live there instead of him, could I – but hadn’t I already? The thought makes me feel a bit sick. Something bad happened there? Can’t remember. Many years ago, yesterday. Being alone, wine, my computer, music, emails and IM, that’s it. Scribbling in my journal in red and purple ink in bed, at my green desk covered in scraps of paper, notes, purple orchids and pots, flipping through thousands of photographs taken traveling and academic papers, lost in a foreign history of my own. Plants, tall stacks of drafts, paintings beautiful amidst abstract misery and desperation. Had I really lived there? Or just imagined it? The memory makes me ill. Did I just make it up, the feeling? The place?
Now staring into asphalt and a partly cloudy sky, intermittent city trees, standing in the street, waiting. Forever. Where is my friend? We’re going to eat some sort of special bread from the bakery, a sweet bread or something? As the sun falls hours later she finally shows, separating from a group of people I don’t recognize, surprised when I bring it up as if she’d never really intended to go.
Another fuzzy event I can’t recall, another one putting me off for some unidentifiable reason too. So out of character for her, I don’t understand. There was no one to be with.
Sitting outside on the sidewalk uncertain of what to do now. Nobody around. The air is fresh and bright. There must have been a porch there, or some stairs, then a book appears in my hand. I open its nearly eight by ten cover and skim. 50 or so pages, with illustrations. Joy. It was about joy. This was written by a friend, a pianist, he’d given this to me. No longer conscious of the street, completely absorbed in its lyrical writing and sparse, minimalistic line drawings lightly watercolored until an elation grows and spreads too immensely to look down any longer, too much to process any more information mentally. I close it to feel its weight in my hands instead and look up lifting up into the air like years before, planes floating off a runway above shapes shrinking and tightening viewed through tiny windows. So happy. Magical. Then I’m here. Rain. Blue-grey light filling the room. It’s late, 10:45 am. Curtains. Oakland in the window. My room. No one’s around.
Were all of those people trades for someone I really want to be with today? Not sure I care what it means but it resonates for a few minutes.
Shaking off these dreams I get up to go out to the cafe. The significance doesn’t feel so important, but I’m pretty sure I know why I’m remembering them so readily. Vacation – no work for two weeks. Whenever there’s more space, when more time is sensed and freedom and days ahead open, the volume of dreams I remember increases and changes: popcorn strings of memories like momentary portals into a higher consciousness about these experiences, mixed with creative currents more otherworldly and imaginative, like being inside of a hidden universe that rarely reveals, suppressed by routine realities. Routines both necessary and destructive. I used to take them too seriously. And now I just don’t believe that I have to anymore. Everything in my spirit won’t even let me anymore; it’s over. My own way of seeing and being wakes up and takes priority and the space just has to be made for it, or it’s like I’ll just die.
This is the thing that may not make sense from the outside but it’s been said before many times over that a certain type of artist – perhaps so-called “real” artists – create because they have to. We have to. Maybe this is not true of all artists but in my own experience the choice has been to create, or to suffer a progressive downward spiral into an internal hell by my own imprisonment. I’m fine to coast for a while but finally these become my two options and for others who are like me I wouldn’t doubt them to feel just as lost and miserable without creating. Not that creating functions as a universal remedy for bad feelings – that would be silly. For me though feeling bad and not creating would be an even worse if not dangerous condition than feeling bad and creating. I didn’t desire this aspect of an artist’s life to be true of myself and I thought the idea sounded corny and overdramatic when I read about it in Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” at nineteen. Coincidentally it was the only idea from the book I never forgot: write if you must write, if your need for writing is as though your life depended upon it. I was too young then to understand these words more comprehensively, but cross the age of 30 when the focus of your generation suddenly becomes status and success and power and out of nowhere you feel like a complete loser. Your dreams of being an artist or writer become even more naive and irresponsible and idealistic than when you were nineteen. They’re beyond merely objectionable now, if not borderline reprehensible in a way they weren’t before. Those benign impractical fantasies of young adulthood suddenly become things you could actually harm yourself with.
Was it Henry Miller who pointed out something like anyone can be an artist — until the age of 35? This is not the same thing as declaring an intention to go into teaching or law or nursing or politics or business. Creative ambitions might be treated as a curiosity or a bit of fun at best, but taken less and less seriously as time progresses. It’s especially challenging for those choosing to abandon their former career path, to pursue art no longer as a hobby but as a primary occupation. Are you published? No. Do you have a professional website? No. Business card? No. Portfolio? Not in any organized fashion, not yet. Not yet. Not yet. Not yet the unsatisfactory answer to every question. Some start early, going ahead despite the odds to establish a position for themselves in the creative arts, publicly – others like me punish themselves for years first instead. Just for inevitably being who you are despite every attempt to be something else, yet not quite understanding why you just can’t fit in to the occupations or places you’ve wandered into for safety and security. By the time you finally come out of it to recognize what the trouble really is and you’ve already spent your money on degrees in other fields for other careers, who will indulge your grandiose aspirations now at this point? But if you find that this is something you have to do – and you know this to be true of yourself because of the consequences you’ve experienced in avoiding this truth for your entire life, then the choice is clear. Whether or not you’re any good at what you create at this point, whether or not you have everything you need for success in place, it ceases to matter. You’ve worked your way to the top in places you didn’t even want to be, simply by showing up and working hard. If you have to start at the bottom all over again, it will be worth it. And how long will it take, exactly, to get to somewhere in the middle, if you even dare to imagine you could? This ceases to matter also. You’re tired of pretending, of lying. You don’t think about the people who would criticize you as much anymore, or the what ifs, or the opportunities you’ve turned down or run away from in the past. You think about what you need to do to make it happen.
I don’t feel sorry for myself or for those in my shoes. I feel for those who are like me but still unable to create for whatever reason. I know these people are out there so when somebody says they’re an artist, I tend to believe them no matter their current occupation or lifestyle or hobbies.
Two weeks of taking pictures and assembling them, drawing, writing, cups of tea and coffee, sleeping, planning, going to the gym, seeing friends. I pour cream into my coffee as I only do in cafes – anywhere else, it’s black. It’s noisy in here, there’s nowhere to sit comfortably. Each conversation this morning is too loud and too much as I move from table to table seeking a place where I can think. Think and write. I’ve been desperately needing solace from these crowds. Yet appreciate an unexpected sense of relief in this scene too, full of friends telling stories rather than singles with their devices. I settle in near the speakers, faint music, not overbearing mainstream sounds like they often play but sounds with real feeling, though not especially edgy. I realize I’ve forgotten to put in earrings this morning, which I’ve been wearing since I was three months old. It feels oddly troubling.
My mind and body are glowing, not in a physical sense. Something else. I remember all the other times like this. I remember the soft sunshine and the libraries and the roses in the window and the moped and the kissing and the airports and the poems scribbled out for fun with no concern for editing and the smells of cattle in foreign places and the miles and miles of road and ancient redwoods and the river. I remember the intense dreams. Stories of living life as art.
You’re free today. You have two weeks. Sit down. It’s been a while since I’ve written, instead relishing the easy relief from words I enjoy so much in working with images. Writing is so exposing, really so scary. It doesn’t matter. Text messages pop up, you ignore them for now.
Go write. I’m dying to write now. It doesn’t matter how it turns out, doesn’t matter if it’s good writing or bad, doesn’t matter if it’s real art.
This was taken from scraps. Cutouts produced incidentally while creating other black and white paper designs, extras tossed aside in the moment: the true first negative space of those projects, their waste, their remainder. Sifted through the pile of odd shapes belonging nowhere, randomly assorted without purpose. Four pieces chosen quickly, without thinking and no plan, without altering them further in any way, and within minutes assembled together and pasted up this leaning figure. Looks like a lot of things to me but speaks like an example.
Urging to make significant or even delicious more of those elements in us and in the world so easy to reject, to cast out, to trample on, or to simply pass by. Art and poetry are not luxuries but necessities for this reason. To allow the unattended or just what looks like refuse to be seen and voiced and appreciated rather than tossed a token now and again, hardly a crumb. The expendable, impractical, unnecessary – yours and mine too. With poetry especially we have a marginalized form expressing the marginalized in apt communion. To celebrate mystery, quiet amidst the noisy, or to place the unwanted or left behind because are we not all neglected or forgotten in some way and do we not all feel this. To serve the imperfect, the difficult, the unsavory or troublesome, even the scary at times. Our beauty does not exclude these flaws in a culture pretending to disown their existence.
What nobody would detect or consider without looking very, very, closely – art changing our minds about what’s beautiful and worthy, what we’re capable of discerning. Not just a world in which we consume choice fragments of one another relentlessly and treat ourselves so, but a hunger for the whole range and process of a more private experience admired, an intelligence beyond the conspicuous so that every day just a little bit, even just a little to be able to show up and not be afraid to look further. Since it’s the not looking – hiding – that’s more dangerous.
— And since culture’s infinitely richer than it could possibly be credited in any given moment — momentarily magnificent or bewildered or painfully plain. So are we.