The Role of The Artist in Times of Crisis

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

As a writer, I’ve been asking myself what my role must be amid the current Covid-19 pandemic. This question has become more pressing after reading this rallying cry from poet Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

The bravery of doctors, nurses, delivery workers, grocery store clerks, and all the other heroes who are placing themselves at great risk to tend to our needs is laying a heavy burden on my shoulders. It feels as if I were sitting on a witness stand, sometime in the future, and being asked by the next generation to give testimony of what I did to contribute to the healing.

The death sentence would be fitting if I was discovered to have done little else than write for personal gain, self-promotion, or simply hacked away to churn gobs of online fluff to increase my follower count. Prior to facing the firing squad, the torture rack would be additionally deserved were I found to have taken advantage of people’s current state of fear, uncertainty and vulnerability to drive traffic to my content by means of clickbait, deceitful promises, or sensationalist headlines.

On the other hand, working on myself right now would not only be selfish, but outright contemptible. About the only useful and honorable self-improvement task I can think of at present is figuring out what part I’ve played in the mess the world is in, and then getting to work to clean it up.

“The man who is self-absorbed in his own feelings and committed only to personal growth is not a candidate for heroism,” wrote Sam Keen in ‘Fire in the Belly.’ “Men must be full of thunder and lightning,’ he added, “not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”

Author Upton Sinclair harnessed the thunder and lightning of his talent to blow the lid off the harsh conditions and exploited lives of immigrants working in Chicago’s meat-packing industry in the early 1900s. His book, ‘The Jungle,’ was one of the first works of fiction to lead directly to national legislation that eventually created the Food and Drug Administration.

Rachel Carson refused to be a dispassionate spectator to the ravaging effects on the environment from the indiscriminate use of DDT and penned her famous book ‘Silent Spring’ that spurred the modern environmental movement and led to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Photojournalist Jacob Ris documented life in the slums of New York City in the 1890s to expose the upper class to the squalid conditions under which their poorer neighbors lived. The Library of Congress included ‘How the Other Half Lives’ in its list of books that shaped America, noting that after its publication and public outcry over conditions among the immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side, sewers, plumbing, and trash collection were instated in the neighborhood.

The travails of migrants during the Great Depression chronicled by John Steinbeck in ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ignited a movement in Congress to pass laws benefiting farm workers. When Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize in 1962, the committee specifically cited his influential novel as the reason for the award.

And that’s precisely what artists do, says Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe, and second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be.”

“Literature has the same impact as a match lit in the middle of a field in the middle of the night. The match illuminates relatively little, but it enables us to see how much darkness surrounds it.” — William Faulkner

With so many fires raging across the world right now, it is easy for writers to default to self-doubt, despair or cynicism, thinking they are unfit for the task or that there is little their words can do to change things. I bet Sinclair, Carson, Ris, and Steinbeck felt the same at some point during their heroic journey. But they kept at it, bravely lighting their matches and exposing the darkness until they finally ignited a wildfire.

As I writer, I want to earn my place in this pantheon of master pyromaniacs; these fire-breathing, thunderous titans of art! Or at least, I hope to rise to the level of seven-year old Benjamin Ball who single-handedly, with simple words and a big heart, gave sea-turtles a fighting chance by convincing the CEO of L.L. Bean to replace plastic straws for paper at every store-café across the country. For while I doubt I’ll be confronted by future generations demanding to know what I did with my creative talent during the current crisis, I do know this: soon enough, I’ll have to confront myself with the question: “How did you help heal the world?” and I want to make damn sure I have a noble answer when that time comes.

Of all human beings living through these trying times, it is the artist who has no right to be silent.

Next In Line!

My number’s up and I’m scared.

Next in line

Standing at the foot of Dad’s deathbed watching him take his final breaths, I pictured myself at a Deli counter holding a stub with the #A01 and hearing the butcher scream, “next!”

It’s the only time you don’t want to be next in line.

I can’t hand over the ‘lucky stub’ to the person behind me. That’d be one of my daughters and to outlive them would be worse than death. No choice, then, but hope the butcher gets distracted, at least for a while.

I’m 58, and as far as I can tell from those close to me – knees and hips crumbling in their late 60s – I have about ten to fifteen years left of brain and brawn. About the lifespan of a turkey (I just checked) and I’m certain no almighty, benevolent skylord will pardon my execution.

So 15 years at best.

But how can I be so sure?

Like poet Billy Collins, I often worry that a tiny ship of plaque is about to unmoor and set sail across the bloody rivers of my body headed straight to my brain causing a major stroke, paralyzing half my face, and leaving me bloodshot and drooling like a Basset Hound. Or what if, as Collins said, what if Death were already “stepping from a black car parked at the dark end of the lane, shaking open the familiar cloak, its hood raised like the head of a crow, and removing his scythe from the trunk?”

What if?

Yet most of us live our lives as if we were church pillars, meant to last forever. We think 15 years is a long time until it isn’t. Look back 15 years at your life and you’ll know what I mean. Kind of a blur, right?

In youth, we live as if we were immortal. Knowledge of mortality dances around us like a brittle paper ribbon that barely touches our skin. When, in life, does that change? When does the ribbon tighten, until it finally strangles us? – Amadeu de Prado

Not long ago, I found Dad standing on his balcony looking wistfully at the end of another day and asked him what was wrong. “I don’t know where the last ten years of my life have gone,” he said. “They’re just a blur.”

A blur that began in his mid-70s, and, from what I can tell, the previous ten weren’t that memorable and he died with a thousand regrets.

That’s how life often seems, doesn’t it? A blurry madhouse crisscrossed by our darting shadow busy “making a living” while putting our dreams on ice. Postponing, stalling, dithering, delaying… telling ourselves ‘just as soon as…’ while sitting in traffic gripped by the death lock of monotony contemplating the lugubrious parade of our disavowed longings march down the road not taken. ‘Just wait a little while longer…’

But while and while have no end, wait a little is a long road, and the Deli spool won’t stop spitting-out stubs, bringing our number closer.

Should we, then, live like the terminally ill? Assume we’ve been given just one more year and throw caution to the wind?

With that mindset, I’ve been doing just that for the past three years after taking a hard look at the previous ten and horrified by how unmemorable they were. Ask me what I did, and I’d bore you with an explanation rather than a great story. So I broke free.

I realize that having that choice is a privilege denied to many. Born and raised in a poor country, I suspect that any first-world tourist dumb enough to tell an unfortunate fellow in one of my city’s slums to ‘follow his dreams!’ will most likely get laughed at or punched in the face. Adding ‘carpe diem’ to his callous injunctions will probably get him dismembered with a machete. The poor have no choice — period. They do what’s necessary to survive which is often more heroic than doing what you love.

After I fulfilled my obligation of raising my daughters to the point of self-reliance, I reached a crossroads. I could continue on the familiar, ‘safe’ road, gathering wealth for that hoped-for day when I’d feel secure enough to finally unbridle my pent-up longings, or take the riskier path of adventure. Having witnessed my father lose the lion’s share of his savings in the crash of 2008, I chose the latter.

Ask me right now if I made the right choice and I’d equivocate. I can’t tell for sure, and I’m scared.

On the one hand, I’m doing exactly what I love and believe was meant to do with my life, so my days, just like playwright William Herzog’s, feel like one long vacation. “For me, everything is constantly fresh and always new,” he said. “A vacation is [only] a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine.” I know what he means.

Most days, I’m like a child on Christmas morning, waking up at dawn with great excitement for the creative challenges ahead and hardly ever tiring, despite working long hours.

The awareness of ‘The Blur’ has also been a terrifying agent of authenticity. I realized there was no time to waste pretending to be someone I was not. “It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly,” says the Bhagavad Gita, and I now get it.

As I age, I have also learned what a true friend is, and so, like an artichoke’s unwholesome bottom leaves, I have discarded those who are unworthy of the name. I don’t have time for that shit anymore.

My whole being has recovered its erotic power, not just in the sexual sense, but in its broader meaning held by the ancient Greeks: the impulse, or desire, that links us to the whole web of life. I have, if you will, fallen in love with life.

But right about now, my love feels unrequited.

I was under the illusion that if one did exactly what one was meant to do in life and brought the gifts of his unique talents to bear on the needs of the world, the world, in turn, would reward him, not lavishly, but with enough to survive with dignity. I’m not seeing it.

I was comforted and inspired by what Johann Goethe said, that the moment one definitely commits, then providence moves too; that boldness has genius, power and magic in it. I’m not feeling that magic either.

I was goaded at the start of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore by serendipitous writings on walls, like, “Don’t let your dreams fall asleep,” and “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Back then, I really felt the Universe had my back.

Taken at an art gallery in Mexico at the start of my adventure.

So far though, the steps keep leading me down a slippery staircase inside what seems a bottomless pit of hardship and despair. I am living the myth of the starving artist and not really enjoying the view. Every time one of my well-intentioned daughters tells me to get a “real” job, I cringe and seethe.

When exactly did art become “unreal”? Was it when we decided that someone skilled at whacking a ball with a stick or good at shooting hoops was worth more than a teacher? How, I ask, would it feel to live in a world with no books, movies, plays, concerts, art exhibits, and so on?

Regardless, I can’t turn back now and rejoin the rat race. People my age appear as unnecessary to society as another pair of shoes in a woman’s closet. Besides, notwithstanding the hardship, I still prefer living on the edge of uncertainty doing what I love, rather than securely shackled to a desk, hating what I do. So deal, right? Grow a pair!

Here’s the scary part, though. If my number’s really up, I mean, like soon, it would make my reckless decision one of the best I’ve ever made. If, on the other hand, the butcher gets distracted for, say, thirty years, I have no idea how I’ll survive.

Author Paulo Coelho better be right when claiming that the road of adventure becomes less daunting over time; that age only slows the pace of those without the courage to follow their true path, and that the world hungers for romance, passion, and daring tales of great endurance.

Otherwise, best to hurry up to the counter and get it over with, or move to Norway, the “best place in the world to be a writer,” though I’d first have to get past my revulsion against Lutefisk and ghostly-white people in tacky reindeer sweaters.


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Why write?

I had to travel forty thousand years back in time to find out

Boy's Imagination from Katie Coppack PicsArt
Art by Sona @sona75 on PicsArt

As my manuscripts harvest more and more rejections, my posts go unread, my Patreon supporter-count remains stuck, my credit cards max-out, and Rose, manager of TJ Maxx, telling me she can’t hire me because I am overqualified and don’t have reliable transportation, I couldn’t be asking myself this question at a better time.

What impulse wakes me at five each morning to rush to the page with the excitement of a young boy on Christmas Day? There are no presents under the tree. At least not in the material sense.

Why go on then?

I guess for the same reason one of our earliest ancestors felt compelled to crawl into a cave in Monte Castillo, Spain, and, in a veil of darkness, stenciled his handprint on one of its walls as if simply wanting to say: I am! I exist!

Chauvet cave handprint

Thirty-thousand years later, writer Jack London echoed this long-distance greeting:

About me are great natural forces— colossal menaces, Titans of destruction, unsentimental monsters that have less concern for me than I have for the grain of sand I crush under my foot. In the maze and chaos of these vast and draughty Titans, it is for me to thread my precarious way. Here is the sea, the wind, and the wave. Here are the seas, the winds and the waves of all the world. Here is the ferocious environment. And here is difficult adjustment, the achievement of which is delight to the small quivering vanity that is I.

I am so made.

The ultimate word is ‘I Like.’ It lies beneath philosophy and is twined about the heart of life. When philosophy has maundered ponderously for a month, telling the individual what he must do, the individual says, in an instant: ‘I Like!’ and does something else. It is ‘I Like’ that makes the drunkard drink and the martyr wear a hair shirt; that makes one man a reveler and another man an anchorite; that makes one man pursue fame, another gold, another love, and another God.

Philosophy is very often a man’s way of explaining his own I LIKE.

“A man’s wants are to be trusted.” said American philosopher and psychologist William James. “Even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.”

This extravagant feeling of delight in art, this innate human need to imagine, create and understand, is the reason another artist, forty thousand years ago, spent months carving The Lion Man, the oldest representation of an imaginary being ever discovered.

Lion Man2
Image credit: MUEHLEIS YAM/LAD Esslingen

Set free by his community to imagine and create instead of joining his brothers on the hunt, the artist’s “I LIKE” impulse began weaving the human story, trying to make sense of our existence — our birth, origins, loves, joys, sufferings, spiritual longings and death — and bound us, through beauty, into a common culture and destiny.

Art, like prayer, is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts. — Kafka

The gifts of the artist are like the gifts of the bread maker. One nourishes the soul, our body the other. Both essential, as Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

There is no insurmountable solitude. All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. And we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth to the enchanted place where we can dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song — but in this dance or in this song there are fulfilled the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny.

The poet is not a little god. He is not picked out by a mystical destiny in preference to those who follow other crafts and professions. I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colors and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind’s products: bread, truth, wine, dreams.

Through the yeast of my writing, I seek to heal wounds, dry tears, replenish the fount of love, delight, and joy, and report on the goodness and beauty that surrounds us. If I manage to do this, even for just one person, I will have fulfilled my humble labor.

When everything else fails; when neither stenciled handprints, Lion Men, or bread metaphors fail to inspire me to write, I imagine myself commuting to work and wasting my talent inside a stuffy cubicle doing something I don’t like.

Death by cubicle

Instead, I get to spend all day as a child on a beach, combing seaweed and sand for seashells and seaglass, building word sandcastles, not once checking the clock hoping time had wings, and ending my long, extravagant day with more energy and enthusiasm than when I started.

Sounds to me like a worthwhile occupation.


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Shudder!

Then turn anger into action

It struck me with the blunt force of a battering ram at the dawn of a new year.

I had spent the previous evening observing the stars and rose early, newly energized by the lessons I’d distilled from the universe.

After an agonizing month’s lull, I was ready to write again. But what? The first two volumes of my Memoir lay dead amid the stacks of unread or rejected manuscripts towering on the desks of over one hundred literary agents. Writing the third and fourth one seemed pointless, for now.

Yet dark, I tiptoed to the kitchen to brew coffee. Not a stir inside my daughter’s farmhouse nestled in California’s wine country. Even Hank and Norman, her two cats, and her dogs, Benji and Clover, lay asleep.

Can’t give up! I told myself. Not after all you’ve sacrificed. Remember the wisdom of the stars: The more urgent the call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Ram through it!

Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about my writing process. In the third installment, I said I used what I know, to write toward what I want to know, believing it shed light on all the darkness blighting our world.

But is it enough?

At critical moments in history, aren’t artists supposed to cease picking lint from their navels or entertaining crowds, and throw themselves into the world’s bloody arena, there to wage war with their pens and help remedy some of the things that make them shudder?

Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass

I sat at the kitchen table and opened my laptop.

When I’m stumped, I pore over my treasure trove of quotes and poems I’ve collected over a decade. Stuff which makes my soul stir…clarion calls to my inner-warrior.

As the sun crested over the hills, I stumbled upon this, written by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”

It struck me with shattering force.

For the past two years, temporarily encamped at my father’s house tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, I’ve been researching the issue of masculinity. I’ve traced some of the world’s most brutal atrocities back to men who suffered major trauma when young. I’ve raised my voice against mass shootings, calling attention to the fact that most have been perpetrated by young men who were also wounded as children. I’ve connected the scourge of climate change to men enthralled with the myth of progress and driven by the imperative to transcend nature.

These things make me shudder.

But is it enough? I repeated the question on that brightening New Year’s morning.

What if instead of casting my unconventional ideas out in cyberspace hoping to catch the attention of those adults with the power to effect change, I spoke directly to young boys? Boys who are growing up in a time when traditional roles for men are shrinking; with a purpose void, as said Warren Farrell and John Gray in ‘The Boy Crisis.’ Boys who instead of useful guidance, are presented with confusing, and often toxic images of masculinity and with false promises and false heroes.

The battle cry that awoke my inner-warrior was sounded by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said it is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.

If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. — African Proverb

Many villages are burning now.

I imagined myself an elder of a primal tribe tasked with initiating young boys into true, nurturing, and fruitful men. Pictured myself at a campfire huddled with a group of these future men — eyes hopeful, ears eager —  listening attentively as I spoke.

The world needs you,” I’d first tell them.

patreonavatar
Art by Johnathan Reiner

As the rising sun warmed the dew-clad vines and stirred Hank, Norman, Benji, and Clover awake, I began to write The Hero in You, thrilled with the idea that my message, directly addressed to our disoriented boys, might just be enough to prevent one mass shooting, one great calamity, or begin to heal our planet.

As a writer, I cannot think of a better use for my time and talent.

To my surprise, just two days after launching the book’s Facebook page, more than a hundred people rallied in support.

I’m done shuddering. It’s time for action!


Follow The Hero in You

 

Dunking Under Waves of Rejection

A lesson on resilience

Rejection hurts.

In my country we call it feeling like caked dogshit on someone’s shoe. (Think of sneakers with deep grooves).

As I began submitting my second book for publication last month, I remembered the pain and sense of defeat I felt years ago as the mailman kept delivering pithy rejections to my first one. Adding to the sting, I then recalled the dejection I experienced during my sorry days of online dating.

But this time around I armored myself for this second, anticipated onslaught.

Tempering my expectations seemed like a good start. They are, as philosopher Alain de Botton says, “reckless enemies of serenity.”

Level-headed realism was next. When it is your first novel, author Jim Harrison warned, and assuming you are not witless, you know well that the odds of your work being published are ten thousand to one against, and even when it is published the reactions from friends and relatives are often puzzled and evasive. (Tell me about it).

Despite digging myself into a deeper financial hole through this process, and now and then, I confess, daydreaming of an advance payment to save my divinely foolish ass, I keep reminding myself that my decision to reinvent myself as a writer was not spurred by the potential monetary reward (that’d be funny), but because it is the only thing I wanted to do with whatever is left of my “one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver).

One must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without hope for fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well, wrote G.K Chesterton. Such a man, he added, must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. This is the root meaning of ‘amateur’ – from the Latin amare: to love.

An amateur has only one reason for doing something: the genuine fire and unbridled passion, concluded Chesterton.

After all, one doesn’t sing because one hopes to appear one day in the opera. One sings because one’s lungs are full of joy. No one can be paid to irradiate joy. – Henry Miller

Besides the joy and exhilaration I feel when doing what I love and fires my passion, I insist on never calling my writing work but ‘Ofrenda’ – Spanish for anything done as a contribution to something greater than oneself. Writing the saga of my love and existential tumult is my way of lighting William Faulkner’s match.

Literature is like a match out on an empty field at night, the author said. While it barely illuminates, it makes us realize how much darkness surrounds us.

It is my way to add brightness to the lodestar shining with the wisdom of sages, poets, and writers who help us navigate – away from distractions and beyond our delusions – onto saner shores.

Finally, from day one, I vowed to never allow the romance of my journey to be dulled by the obstacles I sensed would make the path hard and steep. After all, the view is still magnificent!

I felt –  and still do – that if I stay true to its course and true to myself the path will eventually ease its angle of ascent and turn generous, although, as writer Paulo Coelho promised, it will never turn smooth and secure but always gift us new challenges. I hope he is right.

As I begin harvesting rejections (3 so far), I find it easier to think in metaphors so cannot but think back to my childhood when I first braved the treacherous riptides and large swells of the Pacific Ocean pummeling the black-lava beaches in my country. Young and brash, I stubbornly tried to dive over the oncoming waves to reach the calm waters beyond the crashing surf only to be humbled, roughed-up and tumbled back to where I first started while my father watched and smiled.

“Dunk under,” he repeated his patient advice. “Just dunk. Otherwise you’ll only get hurt and never reach the other side.”

So I’ll dunk, and report back to you when and if I get there.


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(Photo credit: Tim Bonython)