1000 Voices Speak for Compassion is an organization dedicated to getting the “silent majority” of good people to speak up. (My words, not theirs.) Each month, on the 20th, they invite bloggers from around the world to post on a pre-selected topic. July’s topic is Acceptance.
An Artist’s Journey
“As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, fully of adventure, full of discovery…but don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich…”
I am a writer, and a visual artist, although it’s taken me many years to be able to say those words. My parents were not artists. I was the first person in my family to go to college, and it never occurred to any of us that I should major in Art.
If I had said I was going to major in Creative Writing, or Video Game Design, my folks would have reacted as if I had chosen Underwater Basket-Weaving. It just wasn’t acceptable. (Did I mention they were paying for this?) So I chose a Business degree, with the vague goal of working in a corporate office. It was the furthest thing from my true self that you could imagine.
After two miserable years, I switched my major to English literature with the vague goal of teaching English. I got to hear a lot of other kids joke, “Do you want fries with that?”
I hate to admit this, but it wasn’t all down to my parents. If I had said, if I had known at 18, what I wanted to do with my life, if I had stated it with conviction, they would have backed me. They would have supported me in anything that I showed real enthusiasm for, no matter how little they understood it. The problem was not that my parents didn’t accept me. They accepted the person I presented to them, but that person was a lie. Mostly. The problem was that I couldn’t accept myself.
“Laistrygonians and Cyclops, angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way…you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”
Unfortunately, I’ve just got one of those kinds of souls.
I’ve spent a lot of years in hiding. Trying to fit in, trying to pretend that I liked what everybody else liked. It started in Junior High, of course. I listened to the Dr. Demento radio show at night, in the privacy of my room, while at school I pretended to crush on Madonna and Michael Jackson. (In reality, my true love was Weird Al Yankovich.) I lived in terror of being lumped in with the Dungeons and Dragons geeks, the Mormons or the Goths. Not to mention that weird kid that was always picking his nose.
Inside My Soul
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with mental illness: Generalized Anxiety Disorder combined with depression. My mental state has caused me to walk away from jobs, destroy relationships and even to contemplate suicide. But I’m still here, and right now I feel good about that. Because in my fourth decade of life, I’m finally starting to accept myself.
The shadow side. The parts I hide. The fact that my teeth are more yellow that I like, due to my crippling fear of going to the dentist, even for cleanings. The fact that I’m well…a little bit fat. I started wearing fabulous clothes anyway. I just stopped caring so much.
Strangely, I’m realizing that the anxiety and depression so many artists suffer is the flip side of our creativity. The questions that torment me at 3 a.m. and take up my time in therapy all start with “What if.”
- What if there is no God?
- What if I’m going to hell?
- What if my boss gets mad at me?
- What if I lose my job?
- And then we get evicted from our house?
- And we end up on the street
- And we can’t take care of our dogs
- What if…
Odysseus, Lashed to the Mast, Cannot Hear the Mermaids Singing
My imagination is strong, and it takes off and runs amok in an apocalyptic future of catastrophizing and disasters. But guess what? “What if…” is the exact same question I start with as a writer and an artist.
- What if the death of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria wasn’t an accident?
- And what if the only person who knew the truth was his groom, and the groom fled to America?
- And then what if his descendent 100 years later got involved in trying to solve the murder…
- And he found some kind of treasure…
- What if…
I need my what ifs.
I need to stop judging myself for having anxiety, for not fitting in, for being weird and wacky and nerdy and loving stupid puns. For years I told coworkers that what my husband and I do every weekend is “play games” at a friend’s house. Well, no more. I’m flying my geek flag proudly at last. We don’t play games—we game. We go gaming. We play Dungeons and Dragons. Yep.
I am not cool. I am a nerd.
Of course, it’s a little easier to admit that now, since the counterculture revolution in which somehow, Bill Gates took over the world and being a dork got much cooler than it was in 1984. It helps being over 40.
I’m not as concerned about what everyone else thinks. I’ve learned that people actually spend most of their time thinking about themselves, and not about me. I’ve also learned that a large portion of this nebulous “everyone”—the Normal people—is just like me. There are a lot of us girls out there who didn’t get asked to the Prom. Whose superhero is Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian. Who survived being bullied at school by other girls, back before anybody talked about it.
What is, is. Zen and the Art of Everything
- my beloved and ever-supportive husband, without whom I would probably not still be on this planet,
- chemical imbalance medication,
- my emotional support animals, (dogs, cats, and rats),
- my dear life friends because writing is a lonely business, (thank you J. for the phrase above), and
- my talented and caring therapist.
My therapist, knowing my Buddhist leanings, introduced me to the concept of Radical Acceptance. It is a philosophy in which you stop fighting with life…stop rejecting, judging, and complaining about what you don’t like and simply let it be. Just let go.
Swimming to Ithaka Without a Lifejacket
I am a writer. I am a visual artist. It is difficult being an artist in our society. Americans especially have an emphasis on production. It’s what capitalism is all about, right? Achievement and accomplishment are the twin demons on our backs. A transgender friend once told me that she (formerly he) finds it sad that the first question our parents are asked when we’re still in the womb is “Boy or Girl?” As if there were only two choices. And baby, you’d better fit solidly into one of those categories, or you’re in for a world of hurt.
“What have you published?”
As if the goal of being a writer is to get somewhere, rather than to create; to take a creative journey. It’s the emphasis on getting somewhere that haunts me, because my Muse wants to linger at play in the fields of the Lord and run whooping through the valleys of my imagination. Like the poet Cavafy, I feel deep in my soul that rushing to Ithaka as fast as you can is not what I want. And yet, I judge myself harshly when society’s values start to overwhelm my own. When I don’t or can’t trust that I’m different and it’s o.k. That I’m o.k. Remember that Cavafy wrote,
“As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, fully of adventure, fully of discovery…but don’t hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you’re old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich…”
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
The rewards of writing aren’t appearing on Oprah or Dr. Phil, they aren’t getting a fat book contract so you can go and live on a tropical island. (Of course that would be nice…) But honestly, the rewards of writing are writing. The rewards of creating art are creating art. Well, and not having to wear a suit.
For years I have beaten myself up for not achieving more “success” with my artistic endeavors. The truth is, I haven’t put that much time and energy into them. The Cyclops that Cavafy warned about has been holding me back (it’s called fear of failure). Like Cavafy cautioned, I brought the monster along in my own soul.
Filling My Lungs With Experience
Today, my goal is not to publish this article or even to receive kudos from readers who liked it. My goal is to accept myself, right now, exactly as I am, fears, Cyclops, unpublished, fat, yellow teeth and all. Realizing that acceptance, like Ithaka, is a journey.
It’s not a destination I will arrive at today, next week, or probably anytime soon. I have to keep going. I have to keep trying. And sometime, I may have to get a semi-colon tattoo to celebrate my struggles, and the fact that I’m still here. To celebrate that while I am not the person I’d like to be, I am the person that I am. I didn’t give up—I paused, I took a deep breath, and I continued my journey toward authenticity. Toward honoring my spirit.
I like to think that Cavafy would have understood. Because he closed his poem with these lines: “And then, if you find Ithaka poor, she won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”