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

I Have Something To Say


…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.


Happy Photo

(Scroll to end if you just want to see the photo! What follows is an intro to this series of photo features I am calling “Happy Photo.”)

All my posts lately (and by “all my posts” I mean the few I’ve managed over the last six months) have been pretty weighty, mainly because I’m struggling. It feels good to connect to other people who are experiencing similar struggles (i.e. depression and anxiety). And I hope there are some people out there reading my posts because they want to understand these kinds of struggles better. Because unless you experience such things personally, it can be really, really difficult to imagine what it is like.

I’m in a difficult period of life. I went through a similar phase of feeling stuck, angry, depressed, and hopeless ten years ago, when I was in my late twenties. Maybe it comes around every decade. But the truth is, there are many issues I had then that just never got dealt with. Which is fine. I wasn’t ready. Now I am. So that’s where I’m at. Wondering where my life is going, what I want, what I need, how I want to change. This includes reevaluating the 10+ years I’ve had with my bf and whether I want to continue that relationship (the answer is, sadly, looking like a no). This is extremely painful for me, as I’m sure it would be for anyone.

I’m dealing the best I can. And I have faith that this is a process of learning and growth. What I am experiencing is growing pains, and I will emerge in a happier place. (In my worst moments, though, I feel that everything is at an end and can’t bear the thought of more decades of life – don’t worry, though, I’m not gonna off myself!)

What I mean to say is that while I do have many, many hours that are absolute hell, and I don’t always cope in ways that make me feel good about myself, I also attempt to get what pleasure I can from my daily life. My creatures are a big part of this. I go outside to throw the ball and enjoy my gorgeous backyard. I snuggle them and get kisses. I have my few good friends, whom I am increasingly trusting with what’s going on in my head and heart. Ditto my family members. I have my writing.

And, in the last year or so, I have my photography. I bought a used DSLR and a couple lenses from a friend, and am slowly learning how to use it. I’m not great at the technical aspects, but I have a good eye for subject and composition. I love sharing my photos. I’ve been doing so on Facebook, which is not really an ideal venue, and am thinking of starting an Instagram stream (I also have a separate blog for them but don’t update regularly enough). But I also thought it might be nice to share some here. I do share many in my regular posts, but I want to feature single photos that I particularly like, accompanied by a few beautiful words – probably quotes, but perhaps sometimes my own. I want to call this series of posts “Happy Photo,” because photography is one of the few activities that has brought me genuine happiness recently.

So here’s my first photo in this series, one I took at the botanical gardens I visited last week with some good friends who came all the way down from Philly to visit me. I’ve always been fascinated by bright sunlight illuminating brief places among shadows, but only recently realized that the visual beauty of this, in the particular way that I see it, is something I can accurately capture on camera.

Light and Dark Waterfall

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” (Emerson)



An adventure story

I’m not so great at this blogging thing (though I’ve heard blogging is dead, so maybe it doesn’t matter).

The thing is, I go through periods when I just want to be private. I have nothing to say, or nothing I feel a need to share. Or I don’t have the energy to write. I think that’s okay. Much is made in the blogosphere of consistency, finding a topic, finding an audience. But for what purpose? So people will think I’m consistent, have something to say, and am worthy of giving their time to? Eh. When is it ever good to do something so other people will think something specific about you?

I do long to be more consistent in my writing here. That’s a goal, though one I admittedly have not tried hard to attain. But I’ll never find a topic to write about constantly. My life is not a set topic – I mean, seriously, how do people continue to write about the same basic thing week after week for years? What about growth and change? What about changing your mind?

For example, when I started this blog about a year ago, I wrote a lot about being child free and happy with that. I thought that one of my blog topics could be about being an independent woman who lives alone (despite having a boyfriend of ten years) and doesn’t want children. That’s a cool topic, because that kind of woman isn’t too common.

But life has a way of laughing at decisions. I’ve been thinking about having a child. I wouldn’t say that this is a sudden change of mind, because it’s been percolating for a while now, but it’s a big change, and it’s exciting and scary. And I think it’s fine that I changed my mind. I might change it again.

Another big change in my life – and no doubt related to both my absence from this blog and my changing feelings on motherhood – is that I started a medication for depression in December. I was very anti-medication because the several I’d tried before had either numbed me or made me worse. But things were getting dire, and I decided to give meds another shot. I was prescribed one in a different class than those I’d taken before. And it worked. It was like a miracle. I not only was able to get out of bed, but I did so with enthusiasm for the coming day.

Unfortunately, the early high did not last. But I am still getting out of bed at a reasonable hour every day, doing my work, getting exercise, etc. – and this during what has admittedly been a rather shitty several months. I have to remind myself that my goal was to be functional. I don’t need to feel happy every day, all day. I am a writer, after all. I need my feelings, the good and the bad. So I’m sticking with the meds.

So here I am. Just me, with a mind that changes a lot. Just me, who doesn’t know what she wants from day to day. With not much consistency to offer, and no great wisdom to share, at least not today. Just another human living a human life.

I made a photo essay, though, that I shared on my Facebook and am sharing here, because I’m kind of proud of it. It’s silly and fun – which are not states of being that have been abundant in my life lately. But yesterday I arrived at a place in Arizona that my parents call “Little House,” and took my camera out on a walk, and something about the landscape inspired me. So here’s a little story about finding my way back home after a slight misadventure.

So I saw this ladder and I was like, I think I’ll climb it and see what’s on the other side of that wall.

DSC_0141This is what I saw. Kinda inhospitable looking, but I was like, why not take a walk?


Then I saw this and I was like, whoa bugs, that place doesn’t look too comfortable. And I got pricked four times while taking the picture.


Then I walked some more, and it was really dry and prickly, and I started feeling lightheaded.


So I was like, I should eat something, and I had a quick bite.


Then I was like, you know, this place is kinda pretty. All the pretty colors. So pretty, the pretty colors.


And even though we have these aloe flowers in Florida, they are like so much more psychedelic cool here. So I wandered around some more and lost track of time…


Then I looked up and I was like, am I in Italy?


But guess what was behind the trees! Little House!


Getting through the steps

I feel the end of the year rushing toward me. In a few weeks I will collide against the annual family trip, and the pieces will scatter where they will.

Yesterday I went to buy supplies to make these. I want to give them as presents to my mother and various other people I know on the island we all gather to in this season. Except when I stood in front of the shelves of clay at Joanne’s I couldn’t decide which colors to buy. Or whether I should buy a multipack or separate blocks. Then I couldn’t decide which kind of paint to buy. Metallic? Gold leaf? Or what size brush.

The choices stymied me. I picked some clay, walked over to the paint aisle, picked a paint, went back to the clay aisle and returned my choices in lieu of others, went back to the paint aisle and did the same, and repeated this exercise for another 45 minutes. It was exhausting. I no longer felt inspired by the project. I left the store without buying a thing.

This happens to me more and more often. The imagined future becomes so bloated with expectation that it bursts right into the present and bowls me over. I wasn’t seeing clay or paint on those shelves. I was watching myself hand out beautiful objects I had made to people I care about and they were so happy…. And suddenly, I could no longer envision how to actually get to that time and place. The steps required – buy the material, roll out the clay, mix, press, bake, paint, pack, find right moment to give – how on earth could I possibly manage all of those steps in the right order and right way so as to find my way to my imagined future?

Here’s the thing. When I was younger, I believed in the possibility of those imagined futures. That belief carried me through all the steps. And sometimes it would work out. But most of the time it turned out differently than I had hoped. And sometimes my efforts resulted in failures. Big ones.

This is life, right? Grownups know this. I know this. But for some reason, instead of learning to accept failure (or its possibility), I find it increasingly difficult to convince myself to make the effort required to move forward. Even though intellectually I know it’s still worth trying, regardless of outcome, I no longer possess enough faith to get me through the steps, let alone begin.

Even so, I endeavor, because otherwise I truly have failed. It’s not faith but fear of miring myself in that black hole of hopelessness I tumbled into among the aisles of Joanne’s that drives me now. I came home from the disastrous shopping trip and bought the materials online. Although I still spent an inordinate amount of time making choices, at least I could do it from a seated position. Step one accomplished.

It’s just one step. Like many activities in my life right now, this one is progressing incrementally, and I don’t know if I’ll get to the finish line. I take back what I said about not having faith, though. Maybe I’m growing a braver kind of faith – the kind you have when you can’t see where your foot might fall on the next step, but you take it anyway.