Today’s post is about the why of writing, or painting, or composing or collage-ing or whatever your creative practice is. It harks back to Karl Paulnak’s words about how music is going to change the world. I still believe that.
Fair warning: here comes the “Judging” part of my ISTJ personality. There is some art that doesn’t transform us. That might, in fact, be … not worthwhile.
O, blasphemy. For have I not been preaching the gospel of self-expression, and the self-care necessary for said expression? Expression, even amidst the laundry and cello lessons and ginormous collection of dog and cat fur that accumulates in the corners of the stairs that I’m thinking of carpeting solely for the purpose of camouflaging said fur ‘cuz that stuff is GROSS?
Yes, I have preached that gospel. For lo, I believe it is true.
This past week I allowed myself the huge privilege of a tremendous amount of self-care at the Porches Writing Retreat in Norwood, VA. Both boys were away at camp, the Engineer Husband’s nose was in the process of being shorn off by application to the grindstone and Trudy had an opening, so there I was … struggling in a lovely room with a view of the James River outside.
I’ve been in the doldrums with my writing, dissatisfied with my novel, contemplating the Meaning of It All while trying to escape my sugar addiction blahblahblah an assortment of very “high class” problems.
To shake it up a bit, I fell back on 1000 word writes, longhand, from my tin of “story prompts.” These are phrases and images I’ve saved for kickstarting my muse when I’m … in the doldrums. They are written on scrap paper and folded into teeny tiny squares. They live in an erstwhile “dark chocolate mint” tin (see note above re: sugar addiction).
I opened the tin and closed my eyes and let my hand pick one out. I opened it. “Sadie’s velvety soft floppy ears.”
Sadie was a geriatric beagle we adopted when my boys were much younger. Long story short, we were going to only “try” her but with an eight- and five-year-old, who did I imagine I could fool? Of course we adopted her.
She was HUGE when we first took charge of her. Belly-dragging the ground huge. She couldn’t walk up our front steps.
She came with a bowl and a dog house. She spent the first three weeks in said dog house, under a tree in our back yard. I called my friend who’s as good as the dog whisperer. She diagnosed doggy PTSD. Give her time, treat her nicely.
Sadie was too PTSD, apparently, to let us know when she needed to go outdoors for an overfull bladder on those occasions she trusted us enough to come inside. She risked additional “T” by peeing on the floors. All of them. Many times over. She smelled bad. She did nothing the boys hoped she would do; fetch, roll over, sit, stay. Cuddle. Though her apparently infinite appetite did lead her to stand on the dishwasher door every time we opened it to put in dishes, snuffling enthusiastically for crumbs, juice, or soup droppings.
Her belly gradually diminished such that she could navigate the front porch steps unassisted. She and I went for walks – not long ones, she wheezed alarmingly after half a mile – and I enjoyed that ritual. She traveled with us to the Engineer’s Husband’s sister’s house for Christmas that year, where my brother-in-law declared her a sweet dog.
Huh? Sweet dog? She was a peeing pain-in-the-tush! But I looked at her anew. She’d emerged from her shell, though I’d not noticed, being too involved with the holiday mayhem. She enjoyed belly rubs from John, glowing up at him with gratitude. When I walked her that afternoon, I noted her lumbering gait was almost a modest trot, and her lovely soft beagle ears flapped in the wind.
It became a joy for me to look down and have her return my glance with her brown eyes. She became a mostly-beloved member of the household.
The weekend before the first day of kindergarten for son #2, she seemed a bit wheezier than usual, but it was, again, crazy-time: notebooks, paper, pencils, backpacks to buy; lunch boxes to test with picnics at the playground; etcetera. Engineer Husband was leaving for overseas business travel before school started and we decided the vet visit could wait until the boys were in school. We bid Engineer Husband/Father farewell and the boys laid out their first-day-of-school clothes.
At two that morning, I heard Sadie struggle up the stairs to the second floor (she’d slimmed down, but not enough to make stairs easy for her and she weighed too much for me to bring her up and down easily), panting. Then suddenly there was a big ker-thump. Sadie, what the hell? I muttered and scrambled out of bed.
She was lying in the upstairs hallway, laboring to breathe.
I grew up with only gerbils and hamsters due to my dad’s allergy to dander. I’d had one cat since leaving home, and lost him suddenly to a late-night encounter with a car. My mom had passed away during my brother’s shift at the hospital. I’d never been with a dying creature before.
I stroked her floppy velvety ears. I whimpered a bit, I think, about oh, no, what now. Finally I leaned over and whispered in one of those soft ears, “You are a good dog, Sadie,” and she stopped breathing. Really. Right after I said those words, she left. My blind attempt at comfort had, apparently, worked to ease her passage. I guess.
I wrapped her in a towel, and put her on the back deck and wracked my brains to figure out whether to tell the boys, and if so, how to tell them, on their first day of school. Given that they’d notice her absence beneath the breakfast table, I told them. They were sad but being in-the-moment kids, their excitement about school overrode their grief, which came later.
I snapped their photo and walked them to the bus stop and I waved them off and I went to my friend’s house, where the Mommy Network was gathering for first-day-of-school mimosas (my friends know how to celebrate).
Mommy S., whose kids are older than mine, inquired about how the First Day departure had gone. I said, well, it was a little bumpy, our dog died last night, and her eyes filled with tears and she grabbed me in a hug and said, I am so, so sorry.
Mommy S. is practical, smart, logical, reasonable, funny and beautiful, but she is not a sentimental mommy. She has had dogs all her life – she’s probably lost more than I’ll ever know, even if I cleared out the pound today – and she knew what our family had lost. But it wasn’t ‘’til she acknowledged the importance of Sadie’s death that I cried a little bit. That I noticed I was sad.
In fact, all of the Mommy Network seemed to know better than I how to handle the death of Sadie. They helped me bury her, digging a deeper hole than I’d managed and sharing oxeye daisies from their own gardens to plant atop her grave. My family hosted a dog wake when Engineer Husband returned. The house filled with neighbors and kids and we toasted her spirit and I got a little drunk and weepy.
I have tried to write a short story about this experience, and failed – perhaps this blog post is what I needed to do – but in my memory, this loss took place about the same time that I read a review in the New York Times of a one-woman show where she takes a sh*t in front of the audience.
The review wasn’t very long, maybe 300 words. It was scathing, eviscerating all the show’s components and mocking the artist when she wasn’t able to “move” the show along on time.
Good gawd in heaven, I thought. First, if the show isn’t any good, why write about it in the NYT?
Second, since when do we delude ourselves into buying tickets for art that involves literal sh*t?! The emperor has no clothes!
But my reaction has nagged at me for the past five years since then. It didn’t fit with my “everyone should make their art” ethos and experience. My life is shortening with each day and perhaps that is what has crystallized my thoughts: no matter the number of years we’ve lived on the earth, what we watch and read and listen to shapes us, informs us, moves us. I don’t want to fill my head, aka my artistic well, with crap. I don’t care anymore if I “should” extend others the grace of their own intentions being good and pure. I need those intentions to be manifest, for me, in a language I can understand.
This doesn’t mean I’m not willing to extend myself, learn the words of a new language. Or that I want only sweetness and light. Nope. I love Pulp Fiction, Good Fellas, the Sopranos, Blue Velvet, Ironweed, The Things they Carried – all kinds of movies and books that show bitter and ugly and sad and heartbroken.
And I know aesthetic sensibilities differ. One person’s yuck is another person’s yum. We tell our kids all the time: “don’t yuck someone else’s yum.”
But I think we owe to it ourselves and each other to consider, seriously, what we’re trying to say, and what we hope others will take away from it. Not because we can control others’ reactions — – see my “Letting your freak flag fly” post – nor do I think appreciating all art comes equally easily to us. I didn’t love Bach’s cello suites until I was repeatedly exposed to them, and began, slowly, to hear their resonating theme and structure. I doubt I would love Middlemarch as much as I do if it weren’t for the fine teaching of Gordon Thompson at Earlham College.
And if we expose ourselves repeatedly to art with sh*t in it, I believe that we will, perforce, begin to live that out. Day in and day out, it’s important who we’re with and what we see: a geriatric beagle’s loving glance, your friend’s spontaneous gesture, oxeye daisies re-blooming year after year.
If my poop has a point and I need to get myself and hopefully an audience to that point via an uncomfortable journey, I go for it. But if the point is merely a graphic image, a shocking combination of ideas for its own sake, I’m not as interested.*
If we think about crap all the time, watch it all the time, listen to it all the time, then I don’t think we can expect to create anything different, to draw anything else out of ourselves. We need old fashioned love stories and we need new-fangled, digitally enhanced images of our hearts to frame and hang on our walls.
We need to imagine and then practice habits about being nice to our kids pre-coffee and we need to create a world where we stumble upon the right words with which to send each other off into that good night. A world where we can teach each other how to bury our dead and remember them years later.
I’m aiming for that place.
*This mantra expresses it:
thoughts become words # words become actions # actions become habit # habit becomes character # character becomes destiny #