Listen to me… You’re no artist!
Ever heard that little inner voice in your head say such a thing? Have you ever talked back to that voice? After all, what is art, if not our own simple, honest and immediate response to life.
It took me years of writing to begrudgingly call myself a writer and a poet. It helped that my Mother loved words, Latin and literature. And that my all time favorite poet and mentor-from-afar William Stafford gave such generous guidance:
A poem is anything said in such a way or put on the page in such a way as to invite from the hearer or reader a certain kind of attention.
A poem is a serious joke, a truth that has learned jujitsu.
If you get stuck writing, just lower your standards and keep going.
Feel that gust of fresh air and permission slipping in your backdoor as you read these quotes? Which brings me back to claiming the title of artist and especially the artist of our own lives. Truth is, we can all tell better more artful stories. (And then get on with the business of living that story.)
Sitting here at my desk writing this on a Sunday afternoon in mid-December, there is a storm. It is delivering much needed rain to our very dry state. And it is also bringing tree uprooting winds, floods and mud slides. The weather, like poems includes it all.
In the last eighteen months there have been other storms as well. Human storms including deaths of loved ones, illnesses, fear, stumbles, stutters and mistakes. And yes, of course moments of sheer joy, fun, passion and connectedness.
With the challenges and joys alike, the artful side of me keeps saying this game of life must be about more than just survival. Like dancing, the goal isn’t simply to get to the other side of the room. Surely the meaning of life is not simply living longer. Going on, so that we can go on, so that we can go on, so that we can…
Fourteen months ago my 96 year old Father was dying. He was in pain, lungs failing and on morphine. He was unable to walk and perform even the simplest functions that life requires. As it turns out he also had a handgun secretly hidden close by. This final choice and way he ended his life meant a deep shock and trauma for the family. And yet my Father was also an artist: editing, crafting and choosing his own story in his on way to the very end.
On some level I believe he deeply wanted to be a traditional artist. At different times in his life, he experimented with painting, poetry and prose. He meditated. For years he studied the life of Edgar Cayce who channeled his art from the other side. My Father did all manner of things to tap into his own art, but no method seemed to stick, nor did he stick with any method.
In the end, the stronger narrative he told himself featured blue collars, furnace repairs and small audiences at the mall who loved his corny, sometimes off-color jokes. As far as I know he never called himself a writer, a painter or a poet. And yet, when it came to his actual life he was a fierce choice maker. And choosing is what artist must do.
He also never won any prizes for his art. But for his living art, the employees at his favorite Target Store where he walked daily declared a special Joe Day in his honor. They wanted to buy him a cake, but the management at the regional level nixed the idea as not adhering to policy. It didn’t matter to Dad however, he knew the local employes really did care about him. (Nothing like corporate policy to squeeze all the humanity out of things.)
I sent Dad my book of poems just months before he died. I like to say he broke a sixty year poetry reading fast with my poems. I have a picture my brother sent of him reading my poems. My brother also said he cried on several occasions as he read them in those last months of his life. Keep in mind, some of the poems did not show him in the best light. I appreciate my Father reading them all with a kind of openness and generosity that was a true gift.
My new years wish for you is to set your inner artist free. Call yourself whatever you want. After all, the verbs you live matter far more than the nouns you go by. So please write or paint or sing or play or take pictures to your heart’s desire. And above all be the artist of your own life. Become your ever deepening self as you meet the world in each precious moment. Decide. And then just sprawl with it.
With gratitude and love… have a great and artful new year!
PS: Here is Dad’s favorite poem from the collection I sent him.
by Dale Biron
After Mom died a lot of things changed
around here. Dad became a gifted reader
of signs, each one forged from her to him
each one placed with care on his daily walks.
Diverse omens found lying on the ground
pregnant with a type of urging and purpose.
She would forgive him for things he felt
needed forgiving and she would tell him things too.
Once she left a penny, weathered deceptively
green by neglect and with that year she died.
At other times she would remind him to be good,
to eat well, to make long distance calls on holidays.
Through other improbable messengers like
old post cards, broken pieces of jewelry, even old
tools and lost gas caps, each had a portion of the story
to tell and tell again.
For years now he has walked that same path, daily
while the signs have ebbed and flowed with the attentive
muscle of his grieving, hunger will always
speed the plough.