Category: Big Thoughts
Greed might rule but it will never satisfy.
These words popped into my head this afternoon, around 1:15PM. Donald Trump is now president, and he says he is going to put America first. Why does it surprise me that greed rules, that greed as an organizing principle would dominate and ascend to power? It makes perfect sense, and yet I am surprised.
I have been thinking about what makes a person happy; we talk about happiness a good deal in our culture, claiming it, acting it out on social media, even while wondering how to get it. I’m not interested in happiness. What I want is to be at peace, to a live a life that is at peace in the world, with others, and with myself. I don’t mean that I want to avoid conflict, though I don’t choose to antagonize without careful thought. I mean that what I want for myself, and what I hope my children will choose, too, is a life that is bigger than the self.
Greed is inherently self-interested. It is voracious. It is never satisfied. It also happens to be the engine of capitalism as it is currently imagined, and we are therefore caught up in it, whether we like it or not. I am not against trade or entrepreneurship or free markets; I believe, naively you may say, that even business could be run in a way that puts others first. But greed is easier to marshall. It’s in all of us. And our greed isolates us, making it easy to stir up envy, fear, paranoia and blame.
Greed is what we are primed to feel, and how we are taught to live—competing against each other for scarce resources, feasting like gluttons, aiming for the top, winning at any cost, fuelled by our desires, never satisfied.
Never at peace.
How to be at peace?
The answer is simple, not simplistic: focus on the needs of others. Not in a servile way, not in a way that denies your own needs, and not in a way that seeks to control or change others, but with an open heart that is present. Listen. Give your attention. Give what you have. Give your time. Give your energy. Give your talents.
What more could any of us hope for, in this life, than to be present in the life of another? To be invited to share is a gift.
It’s also incredibly easy to do. Think very very small. Think of inviting a neighbour for dinner. Think of going for a walk with a friend. Think of kicking a ball with a kid. Think of what you love to do (to cook, to play soccer, to run, to draw, to sing), and do it. Invite someone else to do it with you.
When our focus turns to others, greed vanishes, and in that moment it has no power over us.
If you’re following along at home, week two of my experimental creativity course is underway. I’m titling this week’s theme “Brain/Play,” because we will be learning about the brain and doing exercises that call on us to be playful and let go of expectations.
A paradox I’ve noticed, as I design this course, is that I am attempting to teach two different art forms at the same time. The first is Lynda Barry’s speciality: cartooning. The second reflects my own developing interest: drawing from life, or realistic drawing.
(None of these cats were drawn from real life.)
Cartooning relies on symbolic representations: what is the essential form (there will be variations, of course) that says CAT or CAR or CASTLE? What says TREE? It always surprised me how easily my children, from a very young age, could identify a representation of a tree—any representation of any tree—in their picture books. Tree, sun, boy, girl. They could point out any of these forms, and it amazed me, because every tree in real life is a unique tree, every boy a unique boy, every girl a unique girl; and all real things are constantly changing. Not to mention that the real sun in the real sky looks nothing like its symbolic representation.
I finally understand: these symbols, and our ability to recognize them from infancy, are evidence of our brain at work, busily categorizing and simplifying, so as to make the world and all of its unique things comprehensible to us.
So that is cartooning. Learning to cartoon is learning how to make use of the symbols that represent things, in ways that are creative and yet easily grasped by the observer/reader.
Drawing from real life is a totally different undertaking: here, we are representing a figure that looks real and three-dimensional despite being nothing more than scratches on a flat page. In order to draw realistically, you have to see the uniqueness of the form you are attempting to recreate. Instead of drawing an eye, you draw the unique lines and shadows that will make an eye seem to appear on the page. In fact, in order to make an eye appear on the page, you can’t think about it being an eye that you are drawing at all. Instead, you have to look past the symbol of EYE and let yourself see purely in shapes and lines. Further, the eye you reproduce will be a very particular eye, a recognizably individual eye. It is a mind-boggling and mind-blowing experience to discover one’s capacity to see (and reproduce) shapes and lines rather than symbols. (If you already know how to draw from real life, this will come as no big revelation at all; but to those of us who believed we couldn’t draw, it is a positively exhilarating discovery.)
Now, the question is: will learning two paradoxically different art forms at the same time help or hinder our exploration of creativity? (An irrelevant question at present, as the experiment is in motion.)
Ultimately, the coursework is aimed toward creating a short book that combines text and illustration, and my sense is that some of us will choose cartooning for our final project, while others may choose more realistic drawing: our individual styles will emerge. That’s the hope.
artwork by me, concepts by Iain McGilchrist
I will be brief, of necessity.
The concussion is taking its time to heal and screens seem to cause the greatest difficulty. Email is next to impossible, and I cannot compose at length on-screen; please excuse my absence here and elsewhere. In fact, I am approaching this as a gift rather than a curse, and I am writing often in my notebook, and drawing, and reading off the page. I am living offline. This could be a new year’s resolution. But I don’t do new year’s resolutions. Instead, I choose a word of the year.
Last year’s word was PEACE. I loved the word. I used it often. I needed it, but also I lived it. In a sense, my approach to this concussion has embodied my understanding of peace, as I’ve lived it. I haven’t fought what’s happened. I’ve been at peace (largely) with the changes it has necessitated. I’ve been grateful for many small wonders every day. For some reason — maybe concussion-related — I’ve been more sensitive to small changes in light and noise, in ways that I stop and appreciate. Today, I watched as the dim afternoon light that was falling across our dining-room table rippled in rhythm with a helicopter that was passing across the sky, out of my view; I couldn’t’ see it, but I could hear it, and I could see the pattern of its disturbance in the light.
Yeah, that’s probably due to the concussion.
My word of the year for 2017 is STAND. I announce it without fanfare, because the clock is ticking (literally; I’ve put a 10-minute timer on this post).
I’ve chosen STAND because it chose me. Here’s why, I think. This year ahead seems likely to be one that will call for protest, and for taking a stand. I am not brave, as I have said before, and this is not a natural posture for me, but I believe that as a writer and artist my work is to stand for something greater than myself. I believe that my stories, my efforts, must come from a grounded place, and that in order to create I must be solid inside myself “like a plant is solid in the ground.”
artwork by my 14-year-old daughter, words by Rumi
Time’s up. If you’re doing a word of the year, please share in a comment, below.
Today I would like to tell you about an article I read in The New Yorker. I would like to tell you, without resorting to cliche, how the article struck a chord in me; but I’ve just used the phrase “struck a chord in me.” (Having spent far too long trying to think of a better phrase.) The article, “Lessons from My Mother,” was written by James Wood, a lovely, reflective piece about, as you’ve guessed, his mother, who passed away not so long ago. His mother was a teacher, beloved by her students, a force to behold in the classroom, charismatic, quirky, entertaining, empathetic; and yet she disliked her job, even hated it, or so James Wood thought, when he was a child. Upon reflection, after her death, he came to believe that his mother strongly disliked teaching, and yet was powerfully, “helplessly,” drawn to the profession, that it was her true vocation, even if she was tormented by nerves and anxiety as she prepared for her classes. It was almost as if she had a form of stage fright, or crippling self-doubt, which she dealt with by preparing relentlessly, obsessively (locking herself in the bathroom to cram before classes). Yet she never quit teaching. She threw herself in.
Why did this essay — or more precisely, this tiny tangent within the larger essay — strike a chord? For a chord was struck, strongly, and not just because I read the article standing in the bathroom, as I read most articles (no one bothers you when you’re standing behind a closed bathroom door, as James Wood’s mother could have told you) — it was his mother’s insecurity, her lack of confidence, that drew my attention. I keep returning to this insight, like it’s a revelation: that a person doesn’t have to love or even like what she does to be drawn to doing it; that a person may not love or even like her vocation, the very work she’s meant to do.
I’m drawn to doing work that makes me nervous, anxious, that taps on my insecurities like it’s tapping on rotten roots, especially when I’m preparing for it. I think we have a cultural obsession with loving what we do — as if the ultimate Life goal is to strive for work that only rewards you with good things, in which case, anxiety or nerves are giant red flags — you’re doing the wrong thing! Look elsewhere! Reading about James Wood’s mother gives me peace of mind. A person may fear doing the very thing she is put on this earth to do. A person may fear that which draws her like a magnet. But a person still recognizes her purpose, and her duty, and simply gets on with it.
The dark is luminous when I walk the dogs, early. I forget to dress the little one in her pink sweater and she shivers and hurries along the paths carved between snowbanks. We slip and skid and crunch over packed ice. Morning has not yet broken. Night is a form of protection. It hides us from ourselves.
We sleep and dream, and we travel in our dreams.
In my dreams I sort out the riddles of my immediate future. I prepare elaborate plans. I wake, convinced these plans have been set in motion, convinced I’ve solved all problems.
When I walk the dogs, early, it is like the dreams are still within me or upon me, as night surrounds me. I am completely myself, the dreamer.
The dreamer has always lived in me, and I in her.
“I feel sorry for you when you read the newspaper, Mom, because you always seem so disappointed and so sad.”
“I’m not disappointed, exactly.”
“It’s like your beliefs get crushed, over and over. You’re too optimistic.”
“I’m hopeful. I think I can have hope without being naive. I’m sad and I have hope.”
“Morning has broken,” I say to the child who is still lying in bed. I sweep open the curtains. There is morning, breaking on our skyline, which is segmented by the roofs of apartment buildings. There is morning, streaks of pink and orange splitting the dark.
Must everything be broken, even morning? What do these words mean?
The day floods the dreams. And so begins the stark, bright march through the hours of consciousness, of schedules, of time marked, and meals prepared and eaten, and chores and errands ticked off the ever-lasting list.
Morning has broken, like an axe splitting the frozen sea inside. Something must do the job. Can my dreams come with me like shadows, attached to my feet, weighing nothing? Can I do everything I want to do, now that I am awake?
I am not brave.
All around me, on every side, I see people taking a stand, even against storms of anger and doubt, willing to throw themselves into the fray, defending their beliefs, being harassed and called out and challenged. I see people whose belief is powerful enough to carry them through the storm, they can ride their belief like a winged creature. What would it feel like to believe in something, in anything, with such conviction? I am not brave. I do not have the courage of my convictions. I am ashamed. I stand on nothing, I have no inner core of righteousness, no ballast in the storm, I seem to be blank where I should have rage, faith, outrage, certainty. I have no certainty.
My parents divorced when I was an adult. This was harder than it may have seemed, because as an adult, shouldn’t I have been capable of forming opinions and being strong and rational? I was not capable. I remember pacing in my kitchen, trying to make a very specific decision, and knowing that any decision I made would hurt someone I loved, even the decision to make no decision. Any decision or non-decision, any action or non-action, would be interpreted as taking a side, declaring allegiance, and all I wanted to do was to love both of my parents for who they were, separately, without causing harm to the other. All I wanted to do was to give them both the benefit of the doubt, which is an odd phrase now that I write it out. Pacing in my kitchen, I recognized that whatever I did or did not do, whatever I said or did not say, I could not repair what was broken; I was insignificant, that was part of it, but also, a broken thing could not be put right by the single perfect action of a third party. The realization released me, to some degree. There was no right decision. There was only doing what one must and living with the consequences.
This happened almost a decade ago; but the same paralysis strikes me now whenever I step in between two differing points of view, whenever I become involved in conflict. How can I fix this, how can I help?, quickly turns to, how can I hide myself away from this?
Do no harm. How I long to live by this mantra, no matter how impossible.
Yet I think, I do, that brave people have to be willing to disturb, to trouble, to shake the trees and shout from hills. And maybe this causes harm. Certainly it causes disruption and conflict and pain. It has to, because what else brings about change?
I am sorry. Forgive me. I am not brave.