Where you belong
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Portrait of the artist as a young dog mom.
Like many of you, I'm writing this in a post-party daze from holiday festivities. Over the past five days, my partner and I have hosted three parties and attended a fourth. Oof! It felt significant and heartwarming to see our new home filled with so many people we love, and neighbors and family who are newer to our lives. That said, I have also longed for a day to do diddly squat, where there are no dishes to wash, no small talk to make, no feast to prepare. After an onslaught of socializing, I've been craving some time alone.
Everyone needs varying kinds and amounts of alone time, but it's been my impression that "artists" are alleged to need more alone time than other people. We're often pitted against the collective: either the artist herself identifies as not being like the rest of society or she is labeled as such because she doesn't conform to certain cultural norms. At the same time, there's also an expectation that artists channel collective experiences, that they produce something that resonates with the society they're in. They are both hermits and high priests: society's beacon and its shadow.
As my partner will tell you, when we were first dating I talked a LOT about needing time in the studio. Sometimes I really do need to get in there: I've had too many ideas in my head or melodies caught in my throat and I need a place to work them out. But I think I talked so much about needing alone time back when we were first together because I wasn't actually missing it. Like not at all. For the first time in years, I was rediscovering the joys of being a human: running with the dog, binging on "Home Movies" (an amazing animated TV show, if you haven't seen it), going camping and hiking, or just curling up with a good book. And I didn't want to go back into the studio. I was enjoying life too much.
But I still made myself. That first summer I lived with the person who is now my husband, I went almost every day into a small room adjacent to the main worship space of the First Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, and made myself try to make something. I practiced piano, I sang, I tried improvising a dance to Charles Mingus (sorry, not going to share that outtake!), I made up characters. But every day when I came back from the studio my partner would ask how it went, and I would simply say "fine." I didn't tell him that secretly I felt it had gone terribly. Not because I had done terrible things while I was there or because I was a terrible singer, but because the joy and flow I had remembered feeling in rehearsal rooms for the past 15 years wasn't there. At the time, I kept wondering "why isn't the studio fun anymore? Am I not really an artist? What's wrong with me?" But I see now the question I should have been asking was "why do I think it' so wrong to want to be doing something else?"
We inherit so much from the time and place we're born in: not just bigger and more obvious inheritances like a parent's eyes, systemic inequalities, or a dying planet. We inherit ideologies, expectations, anxieties and even desires that feel far less external because of how much we come to own them. I didn't ask the right question in the studio because there were and are centuries of at least two powerful legacies that were still at work in me: the first was a plain ol' Protestant work ethic (your work defines you, redeems you, and is the only thing that will make you whole), and the second was a notion of the artist as being outside society (think bohemians, beatniks, but also William Blake and Lorraine Hansberry and countless others), but more perniciously as being a special kind of person. For years I had labored under the delusion that I had to live this life removed from the rest of the world because my creative spirit was so vast, so effulgent that I must eschew normal things to give it the attention and care it required. That was a load of inflated hogwash. And if I'm being honest, my hours in the rehearsal studio, at least in recent years, went as much towards confirming that theory as they did towards making something I believed in and was inspired by. But the summer I fell in love with the person I married seven months ago, the temptation of companionship, adventure, and fun proved overpowering. And my preference for it indicated I was not in fact, some tortured, gifted, Artiste, but a bona fide normal person. The horror!
For months, maybe even a year, I thought this normalcy meant I was a fraud: if I could live without studio time, then I was not a super special creative boho. And if I wasn't a super special creative boho, then who was I? Maybe nothing?! I was terrified that giving into the things I was now so thoroughly enjoying (my dog, reading, listening to music, and camping primarily) were going to be my undoing. When we got engaged and I decided to move to Seattle, my partner, too, was worried about taking me away from New York: he didn't want to derail my artistic career. But as much as I feared the undoing, I also recognized that it had to happen: a life "in the studio" that was as miserable as those summer sessions in the church paled in comparison to a life walking my dog in the woods with someone around whom I felt a deep, unprecedented mirth. I thought, I'd rather be a happy dog mom than a miserable artist. So, scared as I was, I turned my back on the attitudes that had sustained me for most of my life, and moved across the country.
Portrait of the artist as a less young dog mom.
Of course my fears were both well-founded and ill-founded. I am a normal person, and a very contented, if not obsessed dog mom. One facet of that normalcy is that I like leisure. And prior to about 2016, I had almost none of it. Everything I did was for making my work, improving my craft, or making it more financially sustainable for me to work even harder. It's true that I haven't accomplished half the things I intended to when I finished graduate school in 2016, but those goals were desiccated and decrepit from no love, no joy: they needed to be let go and die, so something new could grow in their stead. Something unattached from proving I was a worthy expenditure of oxygen on this planet. When Daniel would mention that he didn't want me to compromise my artistic work for our relationship, I assured him that he didn't derail my career: he had made my life come true.* I meant it. This is what a good friendship, or love of any kind can do: it leads us to the most essential, most whole version of ourselves. Even so, while my gut and my heart told me to leave New York and focus on this new family we were making together, my head wouldn't shut up. I was really scared that if I let go of Gedney the Artist, I wouldn't like who I really was. And no one else would either. Including Dan.
As you may have guessed, that didn't happen. I like myself way more now than I ever have, I'm still making things, and I have a good size of friends and family I really love to indicate my transformation didn't turn me into a pariah. But focusing on self-love and self-actualization would miss the mark a bit, because I think part of what got me so mired in those ideologies around work and the special artist was the very notion of the individual's becoming being at odds with belonging to a group. The worry that one couldn't be a dog mom and an artist at the same time. That's not to say collective thinking or commonly-held beliefs are fool-proof. As I discovered, a lot of society's more toxic and harmful ideas about creativity and work were acting through me, and I had to untangle my life from those inherited ideas. (Still do!) Certain people may be more prolific than others, but I don't think that anyone is more or less special than others because of what they make. I also firmly believe that every single person is creative, and that the best society is one that affords space and resources for that creativity to manifest. And for so many reasons we are so far from that world right now. I wasn't crazy or demented for thinking that the artist was a special class of person: in elite East Coast academies and institutions, it IS. I just don't think it should be. Just like leisure is one facet of what makes me a normal person, having the spark to make things is yet another. I believe this is not just true of me, but of everyone.
I think that also means that everyone is susceptible to all kinds of cultural pressures and inheritances, and it's but one of our tasks to push back against unconsciously ingested ideologies to figure out who we really want to be. For me, a large part of that journey was facilitated and nurtured through my connection to other people, not impeded by it. I am eternally grateful to my family and the numerous friends I spent hours with on Skype or wandering aimlessly around New York, not because they helped me work harder but because they made me very glad to be alive regardless of my work. I had to re-immerse myself in my connections with other people, and parts of life that I had shunned for so long in order to discern my real values, what's truly important. This manifested through spending time outside, singing with friends, walking with my dog, playing music with my in-laws, or going to WNBA games with my dad (go Storm!) And while I could write a whole book about why I love women's basketball, or why dogs are actual angels, the hobbies themselves weren't the the trick. What was important was turning towards and facing the aspects of myself I had shoved into a cupboard for years. The contents of that cupboard are different for everyone, but unpacking it is almost always very hard. Which is why friends, family, and partners are so important. And why in spite of how plum exhausted I feel right now, I still love and plan on making time and space for holidays and rituals that celebrate the fact that we do belong to one another, regardless of our myriad differences.
Because I'm plum tired, and I'm guessing you are too, I'll wind it down here, and leave you all with some reading suggestions (see the post script) and a song.
The song is a rough draft I wrote as an assignment for one of my guitar lessons recently. I didn't intend for it to connect to the content of this letter, but lo and behold, I think they do speak to each other. It's a bit unnerving to send out an unfinished thing into the world, but I promised to do it two newsletters ago, so I'd like to follow through on the experiment. Feel free to send thoughts/reactions. The lyrics (to date) are below in a second postscript.
Lastly, if you like reading these, please share them with other people! I'd like to write more in the New Year, and I'm curious to see if these letters could resonate with an even wider crowd. I may crave alone time now and again, but I also feel my work means the most when I know it means something to others. Cheesy, but true.
In the meantime, I hope you all have a restful, restorative end to 2019 (or a very debaucherous and drunken one, whatever works for you!), and I'll see you in 2020.
P.S. Readings: These readings have each helped me as I've tried to think differently about how I think about the relationship between creativity and the society at large. They're useful reminders as we put a cap on 2019 and start to think about resolutions, goals, and hopes for 2020. Ultimately, they've helped me reconcile with the society I live in, and uproot some unhelpful and downright life-sucking aspirations and practices so that new ones can grow:
Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Fisherwoman's Daughter," in Dancing at the Edge of the World. This is Le Guin's take on the books-or-babies conundrum that is presented as an ultimatum to many women writers and artists. Le Guin, as you might have guessed, is having none of it. Get the whole book! It's a treasure trove.
"Toni Morrison: The Art of Fiction" from The Paris Review. Morrison addresses many parts of her life writing in this interview, namely myths that surround the creative process. She talks about what it was like to write while trying to raise two children and hold a day job, and how certain aspects of how she approached writing did and did not change after being able to write full-time.
Margaret and Rudolf Wittkower. Born Under Saturn. In a very thorough work of Western art history, the Wittkowers research the origins of the melancholic artist, beginning more or less with the Italian Renaissance and tracing the evolution of this stereotype through to the mid-twentieth century. Spoiler alert: it has a lot to do with the rise of capitalism!
Ibram X. Kendi, "Am I an American?" in The Atlantic. When I was in college, a classmate asked our professor in Early African American History whether, given everything he knew about the origins of the holiday, he still celebrated Thanksgiving. Without hesitation, he told us that he did. This was a shock, as I considered him one of the most astute and outspoken critics of the American capitalist project. But he explained that those holidays and rituals were where community bonds were renewed and strengthened. I don't think his choice resonates with every person of color, or every person who comes to question America's values and validity as a nation. But I was reminded of him while writing this piece, and felt I would be remiss in my waxing about collective experiences without explicitly addressing the fact that not all collective experiences are created and reiterated to be open and available for everyone. Not all narratives or collective enterprises are just, honest, or beautiful. They can even be violent. "Am I an American" by Ibram X. Kendi is an incredibly powerful piece about how collective identity gets formed (or broken), and some of the origins, dangers, and casualties of America's most pernicious narratives of "belonging." There wasn't room in this letter, but I hope to make the relationship between an individual's creativity and a social fabric's structural inequalities like racism, classism, and sexism the central subject of a longer, more considered piece. Besides, Kendi gets to the heart of the matter more eloquently than most.
P.P.S.: "Where to go" lyrics
I can't sleep without you.
I don't dream at all.
I just turn in circles.
I can't let it go.
I don't know what I'm made for:
I have lost that road.
I would like to go home now,
But I don't know where to go...
*The phrase "make my life come true" was taken from a Roches song, "You Make My Life Come True," from the album "Can We Go Home Now." Highly recommend!