The Creative’s Conundrum, or Something More?

Over this past weekend I stumbled onto a PBS program, featuring a story about one of my favorite artists, Mark Rothko (1903-1970).The highlight of the segment was the fact that one of Rothko’s paintings recently sold for over 24 million US dollars. According to the spokesperson for the prestigious auction house that made the sale, such mind-boggling sums are less about the pleasure derived from the piece of art, and more about the investment with guaranteed re-sale potential. Would Rothko have cared about this? I’d like to think so.

NYC entry, Ellis Island

Like many artists, his drawings started at an early age. Rothko’s parents indulged his “doodles”, but insisted that he go to college to study engineering. Which he dutifully did — until he didn’t. Rothko left university without a degree, spending his last dollars on a train ticket from his uncle’s home in Oregon (his family had emigrated from Europe) to New York City. He joined an artists’ community in the 1920’s. Rothko later wrote that he’d spent years living without enough food, warm clothing or shelter, but he felt driven to paint. More than this, he was driven to find his own style and method of painting which, at first, was unimpressive to New York society.

nusu.co.uk

The Rothko story isn’t unique. Some of us may know, or have heard of, writers, painters, sculptors — as well as other creative-types — who were challenged by the process of living their most cherished dreams. If artists were the only ones suffering from such existential angst, we might think of it as an eccentricity. But a 2018 Quora article presented research showing that a large percentage of recent college graduates had pursued and received degrees in fields that actually held no interest for them. As one professor interviewed said, “How many of us would spend thousands of dollars on a product we knew nothing about, and cared even less about?”

Life regularly presents us with choices and options. We use our brains to analyze the facts and take action of some kind. We’re taught, in Western culture, to listen to our ‘heads’, as opposed to following our ‘hearts’. As adults, we like to believe that our choices are borne our of our own free will. But pressure comes from all directions, urging us, warning us, to tune-out our creative urges, tamp down our dreams, and lower our expectations about what our lives can be like. Recently I caught myself doing just that, as I was day-dreaming a new venture that felt exciting, but out of my Comfort Zone.

Then Mark Rothko’s story came to my rescue. What if this artist hadn’t risked life and limb, and even his own sanity, to create the the strangely-moving paintings that bubbled up from somewhere deep inside him? I can’t imagine a world without Rothko’s art; in the same way that I can’t imagine not being able to read poetry from women (like Sexton & Plath) for whom writing was as arduous as giving birth, and as terrifying as peering into the darkest of nights, in pain and in lonliness. I repeat my current mantra, once again: This courage; this is bravery. “This is Life…the very life of Life” (Deepak Chopra).

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Life in Balance

Writing has been an ever-changing experience for me. Early in my career I was an editor, and speechwriter, for a very large county-schools system: 48 separate districts under one superintendent. I wrote articles that were published in the WSJ, that someone else attached their name to:  standard-practice, but so annoying. The speeches I wrote for the CEO? Same thing. Still, I was having my ‘voice’ heard, and I liked it.

prima.co.uk

Other kinds of professional writing – proposals and grants – not so much love there. By the time I entered a doctoral program and faced the challenge of a writing my dissertation, the only real struggle I had was with the ‘structure’ required of an ‘academic’ publication. Why so resistant to (APA) guidelines? Because I felt they interfered with my creative process. Because I felt the ‘guidelines’ were meant to create a kind of template for how scholarly-writing should look. Because someone, somewhere, decided that Readers really do pay attention to things like how References appear on a page. (I remain unconvinced.) Because I’ve always questioned, and frequently disregarded inexplicable Rules. Rules for writing; rules for creating; rules for living.

Over the weekend I had a discussion with a younger adult about this very topic:  how the desire to live an inspired, free and creative (how happiness and fulfillment unfolds for you) life gets tangled-up with largely unwritten Rules. “Say you’re part of a team function,” he said; “you’re expected to participate in group activities outside of ‘the work’:  lunch together, drinks, sharing aspects of your life with strangers. If you don’t, people start calling you weird.”

Is this a chicken-egg thing, I wondered? Which comes first:  our own need to fit-in and be accepted, or the influence of others telegraphing that we might be ostracized by the group if we don’t conform to its norms? What’s the real challenge, in being authentic – in proclaiming who we are, what we enjoy and what we want for ourselves, ultimately? I think the answer to that is, ‘depends on how high the stakes are and what the goal is’. I freely share (only when asked, of course) with (mostly younger) people how I’ve vigorously ‘bucked’ the Rules, but also ‘played by’ the Rules when necessary:  when I’ve wanted something (like a Ph.D.) that just wasn’t going to happen if I acted the maverick (read: true to my nature). If the task at hand is situational and of a certain time limit – with an end in sight – it’s easier.

But a full life of going-along-to-get-along, to me, represents inertia, then coma, then death of spirit. How many people are swept-up in the life-long engagement of trying to please, wanting to conform, needing acceptance from as many people as possible? Sometimes it can feel, especially when we’re writing, painting, sculpting, dancing – or just preferring to brown-bag it in the park, instead of joining The Team for lunch – that we’re struggling against something important, and possibly even  risking “being alone forever”.

Quite a few notable people, as it turns out, have asked, and addressed this struggle…

George Carlin

 “I like it when a flower, or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so   f***in’ heroic.”― George Carlin

John Lennon

 “It’s weird, not to be weird”.  – John Lennon

Hermann Hesse

“I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my own blood, pulsing within me.” – Hermann Hesse

The Black Dog

Depression is sometimes referred to as “the common cold” of mental illness, due to its prevalence in the United States. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is constantly tracking data on people 12 years and older, relative to such things as doctor and ER visits, prescribed medications, racial disparities, vulnerable groups, and depression that leads to death by suicide.

sheffield.co.uk
enwikipedia.org

Britain’s former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill suffered from it profoundly. He called it The Black Dog: a dark shadow that slipped into his mind quietly, without being summoned, or welcomed. According to historical records, the prime minister made no secret of his depression, which would sometimes last for days. “Taking the Black Dog” is still a familiar expresson for depression’s symptoms, and an important mental health facility in Sydney, Australia uses the phrase in its name.

With stats reflecting that depression is not an insignificant problem in the U.S., it continues to amaze me that it’s still so hard to talk about. Even in family situations, where a young person is involved, an inability to share ‘just how bad it is’ is common. I know that I could easily extend that statement to mental illness in general. But even though psychological disorders have been “outed” in the media, making it seem as though depression is akin to the common cold, we see it, but we don’t really understand it. I suspect, too, that often we’re reluctant to accept it as a valid, potentially serious illness.

Recently I provided some direction and encouragement to a young adult who’s roughly halfway through her doctoral studies. She described an array of personal concerns that, to me, sounded like a version of depression (defintely not diagnosing, here). She linked her feelings about work, school, and her parents (still living at home) to her general aimlessness, lack of focus and energy. But she also referred to her emotions as ‘fake’ because, as she put it, “There’s just no logical reason for me to feel this way. Life isn’t that hard.” Or is it? Can depression be misinterpreted as mere self-indulgence? My parents looked at it that way, with disastrous consequences for my mother.

Churchill, annamasonart.com

For years after Churchill left public service, a debate raged about whether or not his darkest Black Dog moments allowed the prime minister to perceive Hitler’s threat more acutely than allied politicians. Regardless of the help or hindrance, Churchill was never accused of malingering or being too morose; rather, he’s remembered to this day as courageously fighting his own inner demons by acknowledging them publicly: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in…” Far from ignoring his problem, this man wove his depression into his life as a strength: paradoxically, a reason to persevere. I aspire to such Bravery.

What Can I Do?

It seems like I’ve always had at least one dog in my life. Dog People believe (I’m an omnianimal lover, but I agree) that dogs are superior in their ability to connect with their humans. Despite our shortcomings, dogs accept and, without complaint, endure whatever is right, or wrong with us. Yesterday morning I took my two ‘senior’ dogs out for their daily walk – a slow process, with several rest stops.

Walking older pets becomes a Zen experience (patience, primarily), with unexpected rewards. Had they not slowed my pace, I would’ve missed seeing a neighbor I always enjoy talking to, walking to his mailbox. He’s from Paris originally, and still travels there once or twice a year. A cheerful guy; always ready with an update on one of my favorite cities. He also tolerates my own version of the French language, for which I’m grateful.

Paris Skyline

As my pups enjoyed another rest, we discussed Paris, both agreeing that our experiences there have changed. Not just a flood of more people seeking-out the city’s charms, but the locals seeming more ‘frayed’. Anxious. Irritable. Not only by the overwhelming tide of tourists, but by circumstances in their own lives. Economic struggles; political struggles. Life. Too often, I’ve realized lately, when I travel to a new country I’m way-focused on my own experience and agenda. Especially with a shorter trip or stay in a city: I feel anxious, trying to pack too much in. And so I miss an important gift of travel.

A recent experience in Marrakech drove the point home. I was in the main medina (a city square of commerce, food and diversions like monkeys and cobra-charmers), Dar Jemaa el-Finaa. It was a little before noon, and I was in one of many crowded souks. Getting lost in a souk is easy to do, and can be a hazard.

Picture so many visuals, each more captivating than the next. Aromas of spices, fruits, and oils; piles of dates, nuts and raw sugar (swarming with bees). The locals of Maroc shop here too, so clothing, shoes, backpacks, dishes, light fixtures, knives and apothecary products (argan and saffron-infused) are out, and being haggled-over. The scene is hypnotic.

Marrakech is a glittering jewel to be admired, but also respected. Tourism is a huge part of the economy, and, just as with any large city (as my Parisian friend and I agreed), its people have mixed feelings about their dependence on foreigners.

A souk moves constantly, like a river; if you step out of the flow and your friends keep moving, you hope that at some point they step out too, and wait for you. Having found myself alone, my senses were heightened. Alerted to shouting (“Move!”, in Arabic, was typical souk noise) behind me, I turned just as a motorized scooter shot past, followed by a donkey at a brisk trot.

The driver/rider of the animal was perched high on cloth bags of something. His foot grazed my arm as he propelled his donkey around me. But the shouting continued. After the donkeys and the scooters came a very tall, very weather-beaten man, moving briskly toward me, his mouth working.

He was in traditional garb for a Moroccan male (btw, caftans and headwear can be very different, depending on the region). The man was looking straight at me, soon looming over me (I’m tall, at 5’10” – he was at least 6’4”) speaking rapid-fire French. He must’ve assumed that I was either Canadian or American: he clearly wanted me to know how he was feeling that day, about either or both nationalities.

I remained motionless, listening to the man vent, taking in as much French as my ears could decipher. Like most frustrated people, he eventually ran out of anger and insults. For a beat, he just looked at me; waiting for a rebuttal? I didn’t offer one. It wouldn’t have been helpful.

I’ve remembered, and continue to reflect on the content and emotion in that confrontation: an angst I’d heard before, in France; in Egypt; in my own country. It was an important reminder of what I want Travel to include: not just scenery, but moments that open my eyes and prompt me to ask, What Can I Do?

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