Just to have a laugh; or, On the Serious Fun of Art

I love reading interviews with Ai Weiwei (a name that roughly means Ai of the unknown what’s next). He reminds me, with both his work and his words, that work is best made of play.

Ai Weiwei’s work is serious play — pillars wrapped in life vests…until you realize the work is about all the refugees who have fled by boat, some to survive, some to die. A giant arch of bikes…that address the strict uniformity of some cultures. Ai is deadly earnest in his fun.

Robert Frost says it this way in “Two Tramps in Mud Time”:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes yield one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

I never want to stray far in my work from that sense of work as play, and the idea of mortal stakes. Which is not to say I want to take myself so seriously and think my work is going to make any shred of difference in the world. But I think to some degree, I have to believe it might.

Or maybe just the fact that I’m doing the creative work I do is enough to make some kind of difference in some strange way to something like the universe’s energy field. To get REALLY woo woo and take-myself-serious-y on you.

I don’t know. Is this just me trying to justify my sitting here? I’ve done all kinds of work in my life thus far, a life that looked like what the culture expects — I got dressed, went to an office, did stuff, wrote memos, developed reports. Even when I worked at home, I helped other people do stuff that was similar. I had “a job,” of sorts. Now in this freefall lifestyle of making, I frequently feel culturally illegitimate.

But of the work I did in ten years of working for state government, not an iota still exists, except in the form of somebody’s bookshelf that might have a dusty copy of one of the major things I helped develop. Of the work I did in college admission, I doubt if anyone knows anything of what I did to help an individual or the process. So really, unless you’re doing groundbreaking research, advocacy, or saving someone’s life, is any of this work we all run around doing really “for mortal stakes”?

But don’t we need to believe we can make a difference? And don’t we need, for our own mortal sake, to take ourselves with a grain of salt, and don’t we need to have a little bit of fun every day? Yes. I say yes to that.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Ai said that if he stopped making art, he’d become a barber. When asked if he couldn’t mix art and barbering, he said, absolutely not. “You would never mix such a holy profession with art.”

It’s Thoreau, that gadfly, who gives me the last word and some poet-specific encouragement. He wrote: “The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes. You must get your living by loving.” To that I’d add: and laughing.


Have no fear, Underdog is here; or Neverwhere Everywhere; or The Trick of Living Alive

I have finally “discovered” Neil Gaiman. Wow. I just finished Neverwhere, which I’d picked up on a whim, long after a friend told me that I should read him. Why the book was in the YA section of my library, I have no idea. I guess adults aren’t supposed to read works of fantasy? Oh, but the world is too much with us.

In Neverwhere, an ordinary bloke helps out a stranger who turns out to be a VIP with the London underground. Not the metropolitan transit system, but the world under the Underground, where people from aboveground have fallen through the cracks and time is a funny thing. There are all sorts of good and evil doings down there and our unlikely hero gets involved and comports himself admirably, all the while only wanting to go home to his normal life.

SPOILER ALERT here: His normal life turns out to be not all that, and he chooses to go back down to life underground.

This is a dangerous ending, it occurs to me. He chooses life underground because he had a purpose there, he could be of service, and things were exciting. This is why soldiers sign up for another tour of duty. This is why people join extremist groups. This is why I am, a year into my unemployment, beginning to feel desperate enough to consider taking a real job or some other insane thing that will just shake me out of the humdrum of this lovely life I have and purportedly give me purpose.

Our hero could have sought a better job, could have NOT settled for the girl in Accounting, could have shaken his normal life up in some normal way, rather than choosing to throw his lot in with the fantasyland of below. I’ll bet you that life didn’t turn out to be all that either.

This desire to live in a hyperaware moment can be dangerous. It is one of the things that makes homecoming so difficult for people who have been in combat. But it’s not so dissimilar to that living-wide-awake notion that Buddhists talk about. Is there some way to bring that alertness, without the fear-based edge, to daily life — that seems to be the challenge.



No, Mary, YOU tell ME; or Life in the World

Mary Oliver in Upstream wrote in the eponymous essay, “In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” I feel like I’m still in this state, that I’m still rediscovering, redefining.

I admire the way she is so attuned to her environment, noting the shifts with each phase of the passing seasons, how she daily consumes that notice and transforms it into her work in poetry. I react to the world in similar ways as when I was young. I think I have long paid attention to details, both out of an interest in the natural, and out of a watchfulness born of fear of what is scary and uncontrollable in the world. But it’s what I am to do with those reactions that I continue to find puzzling. How to live a life.

As Oliver said in “Summer Day,” “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild, precious life?”

There are many hours in the day in which to live out an answer to this question, but an unknown number of years to figure it out. I am grateful for the question and how it haunts me. She writes, “May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.”

Pema Chodron wrote, “The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.” I am grateful for the possibilities that crack wide open with that quote, but also daunted by the responsibility. Blue sky today and a breeze bobbles the rhododendron already unpinched from the cold night temperatures to the warming air.


Love it.

This past week I attended lectures by Elizabeth Kolbert and by Dr. Paul Farmer, and have been reading Rebecca Solnit. Environmental journalist (and I’ve long been interested in environmental writing), an essayist extraordinaire (love the essay form), and a man who is making a difference in the world (who doesn’t aspire to make a little difference somewhere?) — inspiring and daunting as I wrestle with what I’m doing with my own life and what the future could hold. I’m flailing back and forth between being galvanized and frozen, hopeful and in despair, feeling like I’d better hop to it and feeling like it’s too late. Of course, both ends of the spectrum lack balance. The fact is, it is never too late to do something, anything, toward one’s potential. It’s all about that single step. And then the next one. Farmer was quite passionate in saying that even just having the right attitude about humanity is being part of the solution to our world’s problems. Kolbert offered no solutions, but one young woman from the Maldives spoke up to say that being required to be aware of what’s happening to the planet is a huge step toward action. In a recent Harper’s article, Solnit questioned our focus on being happy. She wrote: “Other eras and cultures often asked other questions than the ones we ask now: What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What is your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be.” I wish for myself that the messages of this week work through my veins and become part of my cell matter.