If I've been viewed as rebellious, then I've been doubly rebellious. Rebellious in my religious faith and rebellious in my life passion, to call myself an artist. My awakening has led me in a direction I never intended to head - away from safety, security and certainty. I've been warned against it. I still am warned against it, and the older I get the more the warnings weigh on me. Am I running out of time to turn this all around? At what point do I become too old to keep risking? Is it time to cash in my chips?
Last night I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and ended up doubled over on the floor with intense pain in my guts. On my knees I stripped off my sweatshirt as my temperature was quickly overheating. My body wanted to lay on its left side for comfort, but I have 2 stitches in my upper left arm and a tender left ankle from a residual sprain, and so I did my best to get comfortable on the floor balancing my weight somewhere in between my arm and my ankle.
Somewhere in between.
I tilted my head so I could put my cheek against the cold tile floor. I was desperate to right my temperature, fearing I might pass out or throw-up. The pain in my abdomen came in waves. "This is like contractions," I told myself. "You've gone through labor four times, you can breathe through this."
Is it my gall bladder? Is it kidney stones? Is it my appendix? Is it the popcorn I ate? The pizza? Am I falling apart?
I thought about a conversation I had with my son on Saturday about what it means to have your life flash before your eyes. And now here I was, my life flashing.
These are the things I thought on the bathroom floor:
- Why am I so easily convinced that life has to be so serious?
- Why does it feel like I am in some competition for who can suffer and sacrifice the most?
- Why have I been called selfish, careless, apathetic? Isn't it obvious I care SO DAMN MUCH?
- If I die someday, alone, like this, in pain, without health care or a 401-K or a certificate with proof of greatness, will I be okay?
The adultly "matters of consequence" that The Little Prince speaks of didn't matter in this moment. Not even a little bit. "Why, living is simple. Living is the gift," I thought, "and I will live to feel it all and express it all until I die."
I wasn't sure I was going to live through that moment. Breathing in and out deeply, letting my eyes roll back in my head, letting my throat groan. I felt like I was rocking myself for comfort. At one point I imagined a cool cloth draped over my neck and I shivered as if it was really there.
"Do I call for help? Do I ask for 911 to be called? No, not yet," I told myself. "I can still breathe through this and besides I'll only yell at anyone that tries to help me because I know I need to lay here, very still, and breathe. So I'll do that."
I knew no one could take this moment from me. No one could make it stop. "It sucks to have a body that hurts," I thought. "It sucks that physical pain is real. But I will keep breathing, until I can't."
In that moment there was this clarity. It rang true somewhere just on the other side of the pain,. It was the awareness that I belong to no one. That no one can get inside my body and feel what I feel. I can't prove to anyone how badly I hurt, nor can I prove to anyone that they can't fix this by forcing my move. I had to lay still. There was such power in my aloneness as a human on my bathroom floor, my guts writhing a way through. To be physically suspended in time. Forced into stillness and completely debilitated and yet knowing everything was as it should be because life isn't fair, and I don't need it to be for me to be me.
Just as quickly as it started it was over. The pain completely gone. I stood up, put my sweatshirt back on and walked gingerly back to bed, curling into the fetal position towards the bottom of the left side of the bed, shivering. Weakened, I felt the sheer breadth of my strength. "The strength is in my being human, vulnerable, and okay with that," I thought. "There is nothing to fight here."
In The Magic School 101 we watch the film Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. In the movie there is a girl named Molly Mahoney (played by Natalie Portman.) She works at Mr. Magorium's toy shop. One day a man she went to high school with, who knows her as an incredible pianist, walks into the shop and is surprised to see her. He asks her if she still plays the piano. When she says "yes, everyday" he asks where, so he can come see her perform while he's in town.
She responds, "My apartment."
There is an awkwardness that follows, the awkwardness that she is not actually using her talent. She hasn't successfully made a career out of it. It is implied that she is "just a clerk in a toy store and oh how embarrassing."
I feel I have been fed a mixed message in the real world. I've been told "You are great and you can do anything, but you can't do that."
The way I want to go is seldom approved in the real world as "the right way." Success stories are handed out as formulas. Anything less than a guarantee is foolhardy. What's more, you can try things in your youth, but if it doesn't work out, you've got to count your costs and grow up. The ship has sailed.
In a conversation recently I said, "I don't have aspirations anymore. I don't have a career goal. I don't want to rise up a corporate ladder."
Translation: I'm okay working as a toy-shop clerk and playing the piano in my apartment. I don't want to be embarrassed of myself anymore for that.
In the past I have tried to cover it all up because if you're not being GREAT with your talent, then you're lazy and rebellious:
- I ran track my senior year of high school so I wouldn't look lazy.
- I took AP classes so I wouldn't look lazy.
- I played volleyball in college so I wouldn't look lazy.
- I got a degree in journalism so I wouldn't look lazy.
- I applied for graphic design grad school so I wouldn't look lazy.
- I became a partner in a business so I wouldn't look lazy.
- I homeschooled my kids so I wouldn't look lazy.
- Hell, I even mowed the lawn last night so I wouldn't look lazy.
There is this ball on my finger that I keep spinning so I won't look lazy and rebellious. As long as the ball is spinning I feel like I can sneak and do a few of my artistic things on the sly. But the ball MUST keep going. If it stops I'll be found out, and the Real World will strip me of my art with a solid scolding.
I need to say that a few years ago, after I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't be living the dream of being a career author, I took a job in a coffee shop so I could keep the ball spinning. And I am currently keeping the ball spinning by teaching art. I thought for awhile that teaching kids was my career, THE career I've been searching for my whole life. THE ONE people in the Real Word talk about. After all, I do come from a family of teachers, and I do enjoy kids. "At long last, I'm meant to be a teacher," I thought. "This is what I'll be great at." This is the pursuit that would be enough and prove me not lazy anymore and satisfy that longing within. But two years into it, I'm here to say it's not.
I enjoy it, and I'm sticking with it, but I have had to confess to myself that I would also much rather be the kid IN the chair making the art. (I type it and cringe because I know it sounds so entitled to Real World ears. But fuck it, it's the truth.) That IS my first love. BEING an artist. And it's rather embarrassing to say that is ALL I have come here for. That is ALL I have to show as a noble pursuit. I am living just to notice life and say, "Isn't this lovely? Us living." I am living to "waste" time with a pen in my hand, drawing what I see, writing down the words I hear. That's the reason I am living. That is how I keep going. I've realized the particulars of my career outside of that don't have to match a certain plan. There is no great trajectory. I'll work as a toy-clerk to put food on the table. I'll do it my whole ding dang dong life if I must. As long as I can put MY Artist as Magician spin on the Real World, I can keep the ball spinning.
The Real World doesn't think it's lovely though. It doesn't think us living beautifully and saying so is enough. It's true. I see it everyday. I feel it constantly. Who needs the poets and the prophets when you could be GREAT at using your art to market other people's more legitimate wares?
In the documentary about his life Maurice Sendak said that the only times he felt joy in his life was when he was making his drawings. When he was creating worlds where he belonged, because he certainly didn't belong in the Real World. I paraphrase, but I think that is close to his point.
I just need to say out loud that in my nearly 39 years of life I have felt scolded, belittled, hand-slapped, lazy, defiant, ridiculed, worthless, dramatic, insufficient, selfish, childish, mocked and unappreciative because I am here to be an artist and have creative control over my life.
To see life. To document life. To say we are beautiful and we are okay and we are doing the best we can and this is enough because I see it and I say so. If an artist doesn't say it, and make us stop and notice it, does anyone ever see it? Or does life just drone on, machine-like, repetitive and empty?
Real World, whether you will ever acknowledge it or not, you do need artists to say, "Come and play with me. Come and feel with me. Come and love this with me. Come and make a memorable story with me." We are your grace. We are your hope. We are your meaning.
I realized through my pain last night, that I can be here on the bathroom floor of the Real World, and I can keep spinning the ball. I can keep going to work and chipping away at the bills and balancing somewhere in between the sore arm and the sore ankle and rocking myself for comfort BECAUSE I put MY spin on it. But I can't ignore the fact that this seemingly normal adult thing to do (having a driven career) is VERY painful for me even if the real world expects it of me. And I can't ignore the fact that to keep doing what I am doing I have to have moments where I lie very still, cheek pressed to cold tile floor, inhaling and exhaling even if I look lazy and rebellious and apathetic by doing so.
I acknowledge that my apparent weakness (wanting nothing great out of life, save the opportunity to write and draw and express how I see the world) is MY greatest strength simply because it is the only place I find joy and peace and meaning in my life. And if I can find joy and peace and meaning in what the Real World calls my weakness, than I ask you, who is the stronger?
"A smile has to come from the inside," The Oracle at Office Depot told me.
I know what makes me smile. Does this make me The Fool or The Empress? How you answer that depends entirely on if you subscribe to the beliefs of the Real World or the ImagineNation.
Yes, I am in the Real World, spinning my ball, but I am not of it. I am somewhere in between, finding faith on the Other Side of Everything.