I read somewhere recently that artists of all mediums lament how a piece or project, when forming in their heads, is perfect and full of possibility, and then, once it’s retched out (because that’s often how it is, isn’t it?), it lies there shivering on the page or the canvas, not quite what we hoped it would be. It never, or rarely, lives up to its tantalizing, nascent possibilities.
Yet, we continue. Or, some of us do. The bravest or most determined of us do.
The truth is, we must continue. Show up. Do the work. Try.
My intention is to write this missive every Wednesday and Saturday. Last Wednesday rolled around. I began something about my hike in the permit-only EBMud lands, but grew dissatisfied and turned away. I turned away from my bald, shivering creation. Instead of toweling it down and giving it a little love, fluffing out its fur or its feathers, I kicked my production to the curb. I did the same thing on Saturday: began something and then allowed myself to become distressed. It wasn’t what I wanted at all. It wasn’t working. It wasn’t what I’d hoped it to be.
So, I stopped. Shut down my computer. Turned away.
The truth is, to grow, to connect, to communicate, and to honor our Selves and our art, our process, we must put our children, our babies, out into the world, ready or not. We must be proud of them even when they’re not perfect. In fact, maybe we must be proud of them because they’re not perfect. Because they represent our effort—a very real effort, a very real struggle, to utter the ineffable. How do we grasp and put on paper, on canvas, what really matters? The important questions? The feelings and fears, hopes and dreams, that haunt us?
This publication is called Forest Notebooks. In it, I intended to embark on walking journeys, mainly in forests. I intended to raise to a high art the practice of flâneuring. According to Wikipaedia, the word flâneur derives from the old Norse verb flana, 'to wander with no purpose.' In my case, I’m wandering forests as well as cities.
So far, I’ve written and neglected to publish bits about my walks in the EBMud lands, in Las Trampas, in Joaquin Miller, in the Carquinez Straits, and across the city of Berkeley. Most of these were forest and meadow, not city, walks. The Berkeley walk was depressing as all get out, with people on the street taking great pains to dodge one another, to ensure far more than six feet of distance, veering into traffic to avoid getting within spitting distance of anyone else.
I suppose that is warranted in this pandemic.
It was depressing though.
It was depressing in other ways too, however. I encountered homeless people really suffering. A half-naked man seated on the sidewalk with his knees drawn up to his chin, screaming. A man sprawled face-down in a driveway, one foot twisted sickeningly, until I realized his foot had just fallen out of his shoe, and not twisted at all. People stricken and afraid, sidling past one another in the wan winter light, sheltering beneath the awnings and eaves of long-closed shops and restaurants.
I stopped for an omelette. I was as careful as I could be. I thought I’d chosen well. I sat outside. But the entire experience was fraught to a degree that made it exceedingly unpleasant, and I resented spending nearly $20 for a cappuccino and an omelette I could have made better with my eyes closed. Or at least made the way I like. Everything annoyed me.
What annoyed me the most, however, was the soap in the bathroom (after having to wait for 20 minutes for the bathroom, which made me wonder if the occupant was sick, which made me exceedingly nervous). The soap was the same high-octane detergent that had filled all of the dispensers at my dad’s care facility.
I washed my hands, squirted that stuff on them, and then spent the next 30-40 minutes smelling the odor of my own hands and seeing the hallways of my dad’s care facility. His nursing home. The soap that made me sick. I don’t quite know what is so sickening about the scent, if it’s sickening on its own, or because it’s associated with trauma, death, guilt, and fear. But sickening it is. And strong.
I was mad at myself for trying to “dine out.” I had this dream, this image, of me “practicing self-care,” eating out, reading my books, writing in my journal. Instead, I plodded through an omelette that wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t special, smelling my own hands which made me dizzy, and listening to a distressed, young, shirtless, homeless youth splayed on the sidewalk across the street, screaming.
I didn’t write about these things.
Perhaps for obvious reasons.
Isn’t my newsletter supposed to uplift?
How does one write about real life, yet also uplift?
I’m not sure.
But one thing I do know is that, at least for me, it is death to stop. To stop writing. Because when I do, all else shuts down as well. My powers of observation retreat. I become uncertain, wobbly. I become quieter. And quieter.
To write, I need to write. To continue writing, I need to continue writing. To just do the work, put in the time.
Perhaps it’s the same with you?
Perhaps it won’t always be uplifting, inspiring. Sometimes, it may be downright depressing. But, isn’t that part of life too? And shouldn’t we (or should we?) record that bit too? For maybe that will give the rest of us, other artists, other individuals, permission to live their messy lives, to honor their messy, yet true—never more true— experiences.