The first day of this new year finds me in a thoughtful place and I know I’m hardly alone here. I think the end of 2020 and the new year 2021 has found a lot of us in in a thoughtful place and full of rumination.
It would be easy to look on 2020 as a mulligan. A do-over. A throw-that-in-the-bin and never think about it again kind of thing. Take it out with the trash.
But to do so would be a mistake. 2020 was a lesson. A mentor. A cruel but perhaps necessary education.
The past several days has me thinking about teachers and mentors who impacted me and more specifically, impacted my art. About how many of them are not in my life anymore, for various reasons. And how much I yearn to find replacements, how hard I seek the wise advice of those who know so much more than I do.
In fact, getting a mentor’s view on the lessons and tragedies of the previous year is exactly what I seek.
To my great sadness, in November within the span of forty-eight hours I lost two of the most influential women in my life. I find myself on day one of 2021 still reeling from their loss and scared to face the road ahead without their wise guidance.
On November 6th, my dear mother-in-law who was more like a friend and one of the strongest working artists I know, passed gently at home with her beloved son by her side.
On November 8th, my photography teacher and dear friend passed peacefully at home under the loving care of her wife of 22 years.
These double blows were hard to take. I even wondered at the time if I could sustain the loss.
In a text to my best friend, I told her that the grief was stacking up and I had no idea where to put it all. Could I build metaphorical shelves to store the pain? Maybe rent a unit where I could put all of this sorrow and then sort through it on the weekends?
No, there are no metal shelves and no locked doors to store the grief. Turns out I have to carry it with me. At times the load bends my back into a question mark. At other times I carry it almost (but not quite) lightly.
I can forget about it for a moment and think I am through and then a smell or a sound or a visual will bring it all right back with weight and ferocity and my back bends further. Bend but not break is the theme, or at least the hope.
I have questions. I have thoughts. I have worries. I have wonders. I am working on a big project, a goal I set for myself and it is a big goal and oh how I wish I could talk to both of these powerful, creative, and smart women to get my head on straight about it.
One would make me a cup of coffee and listen to my thoughts and fears and tell me that she understands and how hard it can be, but that continuing to work, that doing the work, is what matters.
One would make me a cup of twig tea and then verbally shove me around a little in the most beautiful and caring way, telling me to forget what anyone else or the voices in my head say, to just keep making art. Because making art is necessary in this world. Not a nice to have, but mandatory.
And then dazed and thoughtful after each of their wise counsel, I would go back out there into this mad world and I would keep making art. Putting word to page, and paint to paper, and images through a lens.
Because the road to making art is a long road, the journey beautiful and painful and frustrating and worth it. One must walk through low valleys of making really bad art and occasionally look up to find you have arrived at the peak of a beautiful hill. That something you made is actually not that bad and might actually be very good.
From that view atop the hill you can see more hills, steeper and more meaningful and you must, have to, can’t stop now, start moving towards them. Sights recalibrated, on you must go. To keep walking is what matters. To keep walking is necessary.
Even though I miss them both so much perhaps I can find them, then, in just continuing to do the work I set out for myself. And when in doubt, I make myself a cup of coffee or a cup of twig tea and sip and pause and listen and then…get back to work.
To find an image to accompany these words, I went to Unsplash with their thousands of free images, and searched with the word “mentor.” My eyes landed on the image found at the top of this piece. I loved the color and the visual and the feel of the photo. “But that isn’t about being a mentor,” I thought. And then realized I was wrong.
The dandelion with its many seeds waiting for a gust of wind to carry them off is actually perfect. Exactly the image I needed to see. Writing this out, saying these words helps me carry my grief a little bit lighter today.
I cast my own seeds of creativity to the wind. I can’t wait to see where they land.
This post is dedicated to the beautiful art and spirit of both Jamie Dedes and Marty Rose Springer and the impact they had on my life. I am forever in their debt.
This little bit of goofiness was written in response to a satire writing contest and I must have been in some sort of weird state of mind. I had a lot of fun writing it. My story didn’t go anywhere in the contest, but it found a home on Medium and I wanted to share it here.
After working four years and six months at my Angel Investor-backed, cash-infused, market-disrupting employer, I finally qualified for benefits. Whew! I know, I know. As far as unpaid internships go, that was on the short side.
After unironically eating too many Flintstone gummy vitamins from the company breakroom, my back tooth started to ache, so I found a company plan-approved dentist in the rapidly gentrifying part of town.
Okay, it was the only approved dentist, but no matter. I have insurance!
Well, color me delighted when I arrived at Dr. Ethan’s one-room office in the backroom of a nail salon and was greeted by the sight of so many archaic dental implements scattered about. What a collection!
Never in my wildest dreams did I think he’d actually use the hand drill on me. But he did. Without novocaine.
An illustration of dental keys for tooth extraction from Savigny’s catalog of surgery implements, circa 1798, and found here
I guess the screaming upset the mani-pedi customers, so Dr Ethan handed me a half-empty fifth of gin and an old Iomega at Comdex giveaway stress ball to squeeze. It was all very Old West and I feel honored to be a part of the vintage dental ways.
I can’t believe people actually lived through this! I bet my brother — the one with good job — has never experienced anything so cool.
After the rotten roots were properly canal’ed, Dr Ethan offered me a wide range of replacement teeth in many colors, none of them white and porcelain.
Oh, I could have chosen a gold tooth (not covered by insurance), an amalgam of something toxic and something radioactive (also not covered by insurance), or a nice assortment of wooden teeth.
I don’t know if it was the gin or the blood loss, but I was pleased to have the chance to choose between a knotty pine, a beautiful mahogany, or a nice hard teak.
Well, I chose mahogany that day and haven’t looked back. Sure, the varnish is seeping into my salivary glands and small splinters of tooth fly off when I eat oatmeal, but I am now the coolest, most throwback guy in the office. I can hardly wait for the next tooth to rot out of my head! And for this infection to go away.
The only downside: My urge to chop down cherry trees has never been stronger.
After finishing a big meal at a local Chinese restaurant, along with the bill came a few fortune cookies.
I should pause here and say that I love fortune cookies. Not only the crispy sweet treat but also the slip of paper inside. I have many faves tucked into my wallet, taped to computer monitors, and floating around my desk.
I love the jokey fortunes, the sort with sharp wit, even the solemn words. I love it all. Yes, I’ve even bought lotto tickets with the lucky numbers on a fortune cookie fortune. Didn’t win, didn’t matter.
But on this day, when I cracked through the sweet cookie shards and unraveled my surely personal fortune inside, I was left puzzled.
Let the sun shine on your soul? Not be be pedantic, but…how though? How does one get sunshine into one’s very soul?
Later that same day, I noticed my cat lying flat on her back letting a sunbeam from a nearby window warm her tummy, and I thought maybe she was on to something.
I tried standing outside facing the sun. I thought sunshiny things. Googling the phrase found me a fellow kindred spirit on Yahoo Answers from six years ago asking the same question, and who received some pretty lame responses like:
…live happily and lighten others in your lifetime with your joyfulness
Is that it? Do I let the sun shine on my soul by being happy and joyful? By actively brightening other’s lives? I’m not sure that is correct, actually.
Shine the sun on your soul is an imperative. It asks me to take action, and that would be more in line with the bit of advice quoted.
LET the sun shine on your soul, as the fortune says, is more passive. It means allowing something to happen. To get out of the way. To raise the window shades and allow that sunbeam in to warm your furry (or not-as-furry) tummy.
As I type, I am recalling a recent day when I was staring deeply and meditatively into the fridge, willing something delicious to appear (such as, but not limited to: Chinese leftovers) when I felt a distinct warmness on my buns. The back of my front. The sittin’ parts.
Fearing I’d backed into the oven, I whipped around to realize it was the warm late morning sun toasting my personal dinner rolls. It was nice. Like a loving and warm unexpected, but not unwelcome, caress. Ol’ Mr Sol may not have been shining on my soul, but it certainly cheered me up a little on a cold winter day.
Is that the answer? Is it both as simple and as complicated at that? Step out of the shadows, throw open the windows, and warm both your ‘tocks and soul in the rays of that bright gaseous star? Both figuratively and literally.
Is that really the path to a better life?
Hell, I don’t know. I certainly don’t have the answers.
As both an artist and a career business professional, I embrace both and switch back and forth in my brain, depending on the situation. One pays the bills, the other pays my soul.
I am currently on a business trip for a fairly important meeting and at these events it is customary to have a group photograph taken by a professional photographer.
To that end, yesterday we were told to gather in the lobby for this year’s group photo. We were told we were going outside where it was a bit cold, so the photographer was going to arrange us inside then we’d head outside for the shots in front of a lovely green space.
Immediately the carping began “Why are we going outside, it’s cold out there!?” The photographer’s answer, “Because it’s very pretty outside and will make for a much nicer photo.”
“Can’t we just do it in here?” The photographer’s answer “Yes, but we want a really good photo and the lobby isn’t very nice.”
Then the photographer began to evaluate the shot and arrange us by height, clothing color, and other aesthetics he wanted to see.
Herding about 20 bossy people is no small task, but this photographer is an old hand and firmly took command.
“You in the blue shirt, would you switch places with this person in the charcoal jacket?” and so we’d switch around, moving forward and back as he studied the pose.
More than once I heard a comment along the lines of “Artists, sheesh! Just take the picture!”
Or “Why all this fuss, let’s get on with it!”
Or “This is an awful lot of trouble for a picture, can’t we just use a cellphone and be done with it?”
With this, my hackles began to rise. You see, a business professional is what I do, an artist is what I am. To hear this kind of careless talk is not unexpected, but fully disheartening. I took it personally.
Maybe people don’t see photographers as “real artists” or maybe because the photographer is employed by our institution and not hired from outside he is subject to coworker’s careless talk, but I found the comments rather tactless.
What stings me the most is when the word “artist” is said in an unkind and sarcastic way. As if being an artist is somehow bad.
It is not the first time I’ve run across this in my work setting, only the most recent.
I have been at my creative work for a long time, and I’ve long since grown past any discomfort or sheepishness I have in calling myself an artist. In other words, I own it and I’m well beyond trying to defend it. It just is.
However, I somehow have not gotten past people going “pfft, sure” when I describe myself that way.
I think there is a perception that an artist is a hippy-dippy, flowing skirt, wacky hair, free spirited, out of touch soul. And why not? But in my experience a working artist is also a nuts and bolts, down to earth, hardworking soul with enormous amounts of self-discipline, organization, and drive.
In this instance, I get that people don’t like having their photo taken, but if a photo is taken, people certainly want it to look nice. Good work takes work.
People love to consume art, but for some reason underestimate the work it takes to produce quality art. A few minutes in the Choosing Beggars sub-Reddit offers a few sobering examples.
I do sometimes feel like there are two of me walking around in a one-human unit, and that’s okay. My business side brings some discipline to my art and my artist side brings some creativity to my business work.
So while I grimaced a bit and noted the careless and arguably rude undertone in the use of the word artist, I chose to move past it (under the guise of “pick your battles”), moved where the photographer told me to stand without comment, and thanked him when we were done.
“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country
Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.
Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.
I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.
My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.
Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:
I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.
That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.
I really do get it.
But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.
For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.
There’s the unscoldable rascal!
Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.
This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.
See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.
Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.
Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.
Maybe I need to fart around a little more.
Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.