Monday, December 8, 2008

A Visit With the Artist

I opened my art supply cabinet this evening just to smell inside.  The heady scent of paints and glues and pastels and solvents and rubber rollers and metal tools and... so many wondrous playthings... lifted me momentarily away.  They say scent is the strongest memory trigger, the first frontier of romantic connection, the bond between mother and child.  For me, breathing my art supplies had not been my intention. I had just wanted to visit them. But as I shut the doors and walked away I realized I had really wanted to inhale them, be carried away by them, so that their magic could linger with me as I ease out of my long day of job hunting.

We are traveling to Mass MoCA this week-end to see LAVA ( perform there - and I have asked for time to visit the galleries.  There is a Sol Lewitt retrospective. He was a big influence in the 70's when I attended the Hartford Art School and did my share of conceptual, minimalist art.  A couple of my pieces could stand up pretty well next to his, I think.  Viewing the website for the show I casually observed what I have always told my kids - you can't be a great (or famous) artist without being prolific.  Artists need to create a body of work - a dialogue with society, or with themselves at the very least - that takes them through an evolution of style, theory, or intention.  I want to be prolific! I have so much to do - so many paintings to paint - but, being a single mother of six, my little spurts of art have barely been able to squeeze in... between doctor visits and crock pot suppers and loads of laundry. 

I want to create wonderful large paintings, the subject of which I have not yet seen anywhere and I still feel the world is calling for it from me.  But this is the stuff of leisurely hours... evenings and week-ends that are not chock full of obligations and giddy or tearful teenagers, car repairs, financial aid applications... People who want to "have it all" are always so disappointed at some point. I have never tried to have it all. I knew that my children were my best creation, biggest achievement, greatest reward.  I'm not sorry.

But I feel the seasons changing. My baby turned 18 recently, and a new job may take me away physically.  They can all get around without my taxi service. They can all boil an egg or spread their own peanut butter. They can all use a phone if they need me.  Will they resent me so very much if I am not right here waiting to catch them when a romance fails or they catch the flu?  Will I mind not being that steady, ever present, ever constant compass for them... or can we all accept a modified version of reliability?  I am wishing for this.

So maybe soon, maybe very soon, I'll get a new job, wake up very early on a Saturday morning, and re-visit the art supply cabinet.  I'll open it slowly as I breathe deeply in, and exhale my longing. I'll let my eyes caress the contents on every shelf, then gently remove some yellow ochre, dark umber, and cadmium red... and make myself a warm swirl of rebirth as an artist.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Perspective on Hardships

My furnace is broken and I am struggling with the manufacturer over a replacement, since it was just installed in 2006.  The house is cool, not freezing today because it's not terribly freezing outside. I'm very lucky. A down comforter and a hot cup of tea and I'm fine.  

Any kind of "suffering" always makes me think of those for whom suffering is a daily event, not an exception.  I struggle with the cliché of being the guilt-ridden middle class do-gooder who really is only trying to appease her guilt, not really caring about others. I do not feel that the cliché is true of me, but I wonder what others would think. I believe I care. I believe that the charities I give to every month - whether I'm employed or unemployed - are organizations that make a difference.  Would it do more good to quit my job and go where I could be of actual, physical assistance?  Or does the money I earn, and therefore contribute, do more good?  I have many mixed feelings about helping the poor.  I know I want to do more than I do, but have no idea where the line is drawn that says helping my own children is more important than helping strangers.  You're probably beginning to see the cliché at work here.

I read the testimony of a young woman from Darfur on the International Rescue Committee website. She was staying in a refugee camp and related the story of how she got there.  She was pregnant when her village was raided.  She fled to avoid being raped or murdered or both - other women reported being raped repeatedly - over 20 times - in that horror that continues there, as far as I know.  When this particular woman was in the middle of her journey she went into labor.  She was alone on a road to a refugee camp and had to stop to give birth to her child. It was pouring rain, she said.  That was what made such a strong impression. She gave birth in the pouring rain.  Her words were few but powerful. "I had no plastic," she said, "I had no plastic."  A sheet of plastic to keep the rain off of her while she delivered her own baby was all she pleaded for. But she gave birth in the rain, and survived, and her baby survived.

I cried and cried when I read this story on the IRC website.  I've given birth. I know what that is. My sister across the world did it under unthinkable circumstances.   I love her. I want to tell her I am so amazed by her, but what a selfish wish. I am not worthy to even speak about what she's suffered.

As my house is cold and I am pondering these things I must find myself considering the other side of the coin - the money side of the suffering coin.  Those who follow greed without conscience, feeling that anything they can get away with is their right to take.  It reminds me of a kid in Paterson who told me that if you pass a car that is not locked and don't open the door and see what's there to take, you are a fool. An unlocked car is an invitation, doesn't everyone know that?  Whatever you find is yours. Period.  It's easy to judge these kids and criticize their values.  But what of an investment banker who figures out how to play with the S&P ratings and literally print his own money?  He figured it out, and no one blew the whistle, so it's fair game. He'd be a fool not to get every penny he could out of his scheme, right?  The thug in Paterson and the thug on Wall Street are cut from the same cloth, motivation-wise. Both are out for whatever they can get away with.  The difference is that the thug on Wall Street hurts hundreds of families, robs hundreds of people of thousands of dollars - and I'm being very conservative here.  Which one should we really be condemning here?  Society most likely rewards the "shrewd" investment banker with the big house and the pretty wife.  Do those of us appalled by these attitudes picket and rant about greed overrunning our society? Or do we live with the fact that society is full of folks with no personal integrity and accept their crimes against us as the cost of parking in Paterson or the cost of taking out a mortgage that's too good to be true?

Those without a conscience need to be policed and controlled - whether they pick pockets or take bribes or play with stock ratings. It's too late to hope they'll learn a lesson or straighten up or grow a conscience. The horse is out of the barn. The water's under the bridge. The damage is done.  I just hope that the rest of us can figure out how to get on with our lives, find jobs if we've lost them, find housing if we've been evicted, and begin to build on a new set of values.

I think we're going to have a revolution.  I hope we rebel against consumerism, stop believing the myth that we have to get more, get bigger, get better, to perceive ourselves as succeeding in life.  I told my daughter today that true success is happiness and the ability to save a little. Not buying Coach bags, or living like a millionaire.  Live within your means - whatever that is - and you're as rich as anyone could ever hope to be.  Save a little for a rainy day. Borrow only for essential expenses. Get your furniture used until you can afford to get it with cash. The Salvation Army Store, garage sales, and Craig's List all have great stuff that anyone could use.  Leave the fancy stuff on payment plans for those too shallow to know what's really important.

I'll conclude my long meandering path through guilt and reflection with one of my favorite Teddy Roosevelt quotes:  "I have never envied a person who led an easy life.  I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well."  My life has had many difficult moments. None as difficult as the young women of Darfur.  I'm going to go to bed now, snuggle into my down comforter, wear my wool hat and my socks, maybe even a sweater, and sleep comfortably... more comfortably than many will tonight around the world.