The artist’s obligation (and we’re all artists)

I Have Something To Say

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…and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves, 
asking “How can I reach the sea?” 
And I will pass to them, saying nothing, 
the starry echoes of the wave, 
a breaking up of foam and quicksand, 
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself, 
the grey cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea 
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.

(Pablo Neruda, from “The Poet’s Obligation”; trans. A. Reid)

Every day every one of us enjoys, consciously or not, some form of art, “high” or “low” – something that emerged from the creative mind of another person. Music, TV shows, paintings or pictures on the walls of our places of work, even news articles are acts of creation, a type of art. In fact, when you think about it, much of the stuff of our daily lives has its origin in human inspiration.

That’s amazing, don’t you think? We are literally surrounded by the legacy of the labor of creativity.

And creativity is labor, if you want anything to come of it. Ideas are easy – manifesting them in reality rarely is. This is true of any kind of art, but I often think that writers are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to sharing their work with the world. Writing in any form – poetry, fiction, blogging – requires a significant time investment by the consumer. And in today’s world, even five minutes can seem significant.

Why don’t I read poetry? Because it takes too much effort – which translates into time. I’m lazy and want the instant gratification of prose, not the slow unfolding in my mind of the meaning of a series of words I’ve had to read a few times over to absorb and understand.

I realized today, reading the above poem by Neruda, what I am losing by not giving my time to poetry. It’s not what you would think. Sure, I’m missing out on the beauty of it. But that’s not what struck me when I looked up from my iPad and thought, “Ah, I get it. I understand what he’s saying.” Reading poetry is both a discipline and a devotion. You have to focus your mind, as in mediation, and you must read the poem several times at least. And through so doing, you honor the poet and his/her work. You are expressing a kind of love for the poet.

This is the real reason reading poetry is so difficult for me. Because it requires that I open my heart up to the poet’s soul, in a sense. Poetry is meaning distilled. It is intimate and immediate. There is no hiding from the words and their meaning. Poems – at least the modern kind that tend to be short – must be read in one go; there is no escape from their meter.

Poetry can be hard work to read, intellectually and emotionally. Not many people read it. Few buy it.

And yet, poets continue to write. Just as I have continued to write (my fiction but also this blog and my dissertation), though I have no audience or publications. And I often ask why I bother. Because writing, like reading, can be painful work. As novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro recently wrote about being a writer, “I cry every day.”

I think, though, that Neruda provides an answer. I have an obligation to share my words and the perspective they emerge from. Not for any specific reason. Not to get published, or even for more altruistic reasons like helping others. Simply because all of us, each one, has an obligation to share ourselves as best we can. I do this through words. Others do so through service, or parenthood, or activism. This is what being human is, and how we collectively create a world worth living in despite all the ugliness we see every day.

I don’t have any high purpose such as Neruda expresses in his poem, but his words have touched me. They brought back the beach vacation when I took the above photo – one of the last truly happy times I spent with my ex bf. Neruda’s obligation has been fulfilled through me. But his poem also made me cognizant of my own obligation. My writing matters, even if few people read it. Because it’s my way of sharing who and what I am in the best way I can.

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Are all emotions, even compassion, essentially selfish?

So an update on my quest to make Happy Photo the actual theme of my blog, since (almost) every post I’ve been doing lately is a Happy Photo post. Nope, can’t do it. Or not officially, as a title of my blog or anything. There is a photo studio with that name already. However, I still intend to begin most of my posts with a photo and quote, as I have been doing. The posts will no longer be labelled Happy Photo. But their purpose is to feature a single photo I have taken that makes me happy, and to use that photo and accompanying quote as a starting point for some thoughts on a particular topic. (And now that I’ve figured this out, there will be fewer annoying words before the photos : ).

Electric Water

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“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” (Dalai Lama)

Let me begin by saying I highly respect the Dalai Lama. I was once lucky enough to attend a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in which he was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He gave a speech, and had a giggle like a small child’s. It was impossible (at least for me) not to feel profoundly impacted by his presence and message.

But I call bullshit on the above quote.

The other day there was an upsetting incident involving my ex bf. I could have responded with anger or kindness. I chose kindness, because I recognized the emotions behind his actions. They are the same that I feel: loss, grief, regret, anger, etc. All the stuff you feel when you end a relationship. The incident was incredibly distressing and even somewhat frightening to me, but mostly I felt sadness for him and myself, and for the loss we have both suffered. I responded in a way that I hoped would alleviate some of the weight of what he was feeling.

I admit I have always felt an excess of compassion for him. Perhaps because he so seems to need it.

I’ll also admit that there have been many, many times in the past when I responded with the opposite of compassion to him, and I feel deep regret for those times. Enacting compassion in relationships is something I have had to work on and learn.

I also admit that in practicing compassion for him, I feel a need for something in return. I’m not sure exactly what. Maybe recognition that even though I reacted in a kind way, I still had reason to feel upset myself. Maybe some compassion in return. Heck, maybe I expected the gates of heaven to open and angels to sing in praise of my generosity. Yeah, ugly, I know. But this is the point of this post. Was I really being compassionate, or was I acting kindly in hopes of gaining something for myself?

It should come as no surprise that the incident did not resolve in a way that alleviated my own distress. And I ended up feeling aggrieved.

I started wondering. Are all emotions and pursuant behaviors selfish? Is there such a thing as true compassion? I know I felt genuine compassion for him, but in acting upon that, it seems that I may have screwed it up.

Maybe only people like the Dalai Lama are capable of true compassion, in both thought and deed.

Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I did the best I could. I did act with good intentions, even if I was hoping some of that goodness would come back my way. And maybe that’s human. And at least I can see that and own it.

But I’m sorry, Dalai Lama. Practicing compassion did not make me happy. And it appears that my ex bf did not even recognize what I did as compassion, so I can’t say it really made him happy either.

Or maybe I misunderstand what compassion really is. Maybe it’s not about kindness or feeling sympathy for someone who has harmed you. But if it’s not that, what on earth is it?

Still so much to learn, still so far to go.

Deactivating and deleting, oh yeah

Shortly after I broke up with my bf, I put a profile up on an online dating site. I had no idea what to expect, as I’d never done this kind of thing before. But a friend of mine has done it for years, and he recommended I give it a try.

I figured that at the very least it would distract me, and perhaps make me feel better about myself. And right there, with those two reasons, I sealed my fate with doom in terms of online dating. It did distract me, to be sure. But not in a good way. I found the attention overwhelming, and the responsibility of keeping up, dealing with the numerous jerks/assholes/idiots, and even communicating with the few decent men was actually making me feel worse about myself and my life.

I deleted my account exactly one week after putting it up, mainly because I realized I’m not ready for dating in general. But I’ve also discovered online dating is not for me. It made me feel exposed and unsafe. Even some of the decent guys (the ones who wrote in full sentences and seemed to have actually read my profile) were way too aggressive. I sympathize with mens’ position on these sites – I know they put up with a lot of bullshit too, though probably of an entirely different kind.

Here are some of the lovely exchanges I had and my responding feelings in italics:

  • A quadriplegic man asked me to have babies with him after an exchange of a few messages (sad)
  • A guy dismissed me with “eh” when I told him I was not interested in doing the dirty in public (eye roll)
  • Several men implied that I had no right to set up the boundary of wanting to talk for awhile online before meeting because even putting up a profile was suggestive that I was “available” (so just me being a woman means I should be available to you when/how you want? ANGER)
  • A kid nearly half my age asked me to cuddle and smooch with him (okay, I won’t deny this was flattering – but I was surprised how many younger men/boys contacted me)
  • A guy who lives a hundred miles away said he didn’t mind driving up to see me when I told him I was looking for people in my own town (you would drive a hundred miles just to have coffee with me? Really?? And then what would you say to me when I thanked you for the coffee and told you to drive on back home? Scared)

Okay, enough of that rant. Like I said, I know enough really good guys who do online dating, and met a couple myself in the one week I did it to know it’s tough for them, too.

My ultimate feeling about online dating, though? It really freaked me out.

After deleting my account, I felt tremendous relief. Not just because I had removed something from my life that made me far too vulnerable to bad things in a number of ways, but because I no longer had all that contact with people. It was too much for an introvert like me. Even messages in an inbox can feel like an invasion of my space and sanity (such as it is at the moment).

Then you know what I did next, after deleting my online dating profile? I deactivated my Facebook account.

I have no idea why. I really don’t. I just felt like I should. There has been a lot of discussion on the Internet, or at least the small corner where I hang out, about compulsive, addictive use of technology, too much screen time, to much me me me with all the Instagram photos, too much lying about our lives by only posting the attractive stuff. None of that resonates with me. Personally, posting happy, positive things on Facebook was a major way I celebrated the good things in my life – it was akin to practicing gratitude. Sure, I did check the stream compulsively, but people have always been attracted to distractions. Facebook is just the latest iteration. Is technology changing us and our culture and even our brains in some qualitative way? Probably. But it’s the nature of things to change.

None of those reasons were why I deactivated. I just did, suddenly and without really thinking about it. And it felt good. I can always reactivate at some point, but for now I have ejected a bunch of people from my headspace – people whose headspace I’m sure I rarely made an impression on.

Like many things in my life right now, this is an experiment whose outcome I cannot predict. I’ll do an update later if it brings me any great revelations, but I have a feeling there won’t be anything like that. Just a bit more peace, maybe.

I’m starting to get friendship

15168558829_6e77be913b_oMy family values self-sufficiency. We never ask for help if we can get something done ourselves. We don’t borrow money, or ask other people for rides to the airport, or hire someone to mow the lawn.

I came up with three reasons why we are like this, not all of which necessarily reflect well on us, but what can you do:

1. We consider ourselves to be talented individuals who can do nearly anything if we put our minds to it.

2. We do not want to get used to depending on others, in case there comes a time when others are not available to help.

3. We dislike the burden of reciprocity.

Our self-sufficiency extends to our emotional lives. If we are sad, stressed, or lonely, we deal with it on our own. I grew up thinking this was natural and admirable. But lately I’ve been wondering what the heck friends and family are for, if not to assist us in times of emotional need. You may find it unbelievable that I never considered this before, but I haven’t. When I feel depressed, I isolate. I don’t want to burden others, and I don’t believe they can actually help me.

Then the other night I mistakenly called one of my close friends (who moved to another state a year ago) on FaceTime while trying to figure out what my own ID was. I quickly terminated the call, but an hour later I got a text from her thanking me for calling and asking if I wanted to chat.

My first thought was, Wow, she thinks I called on purpose! My own assumption in a similar situation would be that the person probably made a mistake because why would they call me randomly? (I personally prefer a heads up on calls so I can “prepare” myself.)

My second thought was, Wow, she’s happy I called! It dawned on me that my friends might actually want me to call them. (I always assume that if they want to talk, they will call me – I rarely fell a “need” to talk because of my self-sufficiency.)

My third thought was, Wow, now I understand why so many of my long distance friendships have faded away or even ended badly. Those friends probably thought I didn’t value them. Here I was thinking they didn’t want to be my friend anymore when all the time they were probably thinking the same of me. And it was my fault.

Truth is, I’ve kinda sorta known this in my heart all along. But I blamed my depression. It makes it very difficult for me to function normally, which includes keeping up with friendships. And there’s the whole self-sufficiency thing. After all, how can friends really help with depression? Nothing can help.

I’ve noticed something recently, though, that makes me think I’m seriously developmentally delayed when it comes to friendship. I’ve had long talks with a good long distance friend twice in the last three months (two different friends). Both times I opened up about how depressed I’ve been (something I’ve only started doing recently, as part of exploring new coping mechanisms). Both times the friends listened, gave advice that didn’t necessarily help (because nothing helps), and talked about their own and other people’s experiences with sadness.

After both phone calls I woke up the next morning feeling awful. Because talking to friends doesn’t help. But then, magic occurred. At least to me it felt like magic. As the day went on, I felt better. Lots better. Like, almost normal better.

You guys, last night I picked up the quilt I started earlier this year and haven’t worked on in eight months and I sewed four squares together! This is a big deal.

I can’t tell you how astounding this all is to me. True, only two experiences isn’t a large enough sample size to base any conclusions on, but you know what I’m going to do next time I feel hopeless and down? Call a friend! My preliminary findings seem to indicate that the act of talking with a good friend who cares and takes the time to listen and respond actually helps me feel better. Not because of anything they said, but because they were there to say it.

You might be thinking, Duh, and I get that! Like I said, I’m clearly lacking in some kind of fundamental understanding of how to make use of the benefits of friendship. But I think I’m starting to get it.

Photograph taken by my father in Keystone, Colorado.