Taken a few minutes before totality in Dayton, Tennessee. My phone stayed in my pocket during totality. A total eclipse is a truly amazing experience. The difference between 99% and totality is worth a day’s drive. That’s about all that can be said.
Beer in hand within moments of getting home. This is how voting feels these days.
The day after locking one’s self out of the loft, one gets new keys made to leave with friends.
Slossfest 2017. Contrast of the singular and the communal.
I guess I should expect such things when wearing Oliver Sack’s favorite t-shirt.
I finished the story arc of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman recently. It took a little more than a year to get through the 75 issues, and as I mentioned once, I can’t help wondering what my reaction would have been to The Sandman had I read it when I began reading comics in my preteen and teenage years. It would have been quite the challenge, far more direct an assault on my nascent religious awaking than the X-Men or Spiderman. The themes of Spiderman can fit pretty neatly in a Judeo-Christian worldview, while the realm of Sandman in the hands of Gaiman deftly blends the myths of all religions into an amalgamation rooted in our subconscious needs, while anthropomorphizing metaphysical notions as the Endless gets rather deep in the philosophical waters of the human consciousness, myth making, and our need to understand the world around us; to create stories that help us come to grips with a world that often makes no sense.
Over the course of the year, some of the storylines enthralled me with the inventiveness of the world crafted by Gaiman. Others veered into fantasy and horror realms that were a bit more sludgy for me to get through. Though, as so often with genre fiction, even in the stories that I wasn’t as interested in, Gaiman offered insights into human nature, fears, hopes, and most appropriately dreams. But often, I found myself frustrated and angry with Morpheus.
Not to conflate myself with a significant literary figure, but I have to think much of my frustration with Morpheus was a result of the mirror he presented to me. His capricious nature, particularly to those around him. I’ve been prone to realize just how significant people are to me only after they’ve exited my life. A point eating away at much of my brain’s free processing time for the last couple of months. I hated how distant and withdrawn he could be. The the gothic romantic sensibilities of aloofness and so on. It just bugged the hell out me at times. He was a dick for lack of more subtle language.
And so too am I at times. It’s not enough to say that I’m moody and difficult (again, very much share with Morpheus). Acknowledging that fact doesn’t make it go away, or make it more bearable for those around me. It just highlights how little I’ve done to work it out, resolve it, or try to see things from a partner’s perspective. More specifically though, the times he would court a lover, spend time with them, seemingly grow bored, and allow the relationship to wither, or worse yet, punish those that loved him, burrowed under my skin more than anything else. Back to those shades of my personality I hate. And haven’t found the power to exorcise yet. Again, the specific things gnawing at my brain recently. The mirror of my behavior. It stung.
Then, the conclusion of the story arc. A gut punch. I’m teased quite regularly for my insistence on adhering to rules. Whether necessary or not. For having a rigid sense of what needs be done. Perhaps to my detriment at times, others just amusing… like following the queue lines when no one is there rather than just walking around them to the register. It’s quirky, but harmless. But on a deeper level there is a resistance to change, an adherence to order. I’m sure I could write a thesis on the myriad underlying causes from my childhood, genetics, whatever. But the desire for order. Rules. Habits. It runs deep. And it causes conflict.
So I find myself, after a year of reading, struggling with a relationship, watching it unravel largely as a result of my actions, regretting those actions, seeing my underlying behavior mirrored in a comic book that I started reading because of the relationship, reading as the character faces a final conflict. One in which he must choose between change or death. And he’s so unwilling to change, to break his commitment to rules, that he chooses death.
Change is inevitable. It can be read as a simple truth, cliché, whatever. And though I’ve not faced a decision as stark as change or die, I’ve repeatedly faced the decision of change or let something else die. And I’ve refused to change. I can look back over the years and find times and situations when that was the right decision. But I can also look back on so many instances where I regret those choices.
And I face a sentiment that struck me recently. I know nothing.
That may sounds like negative thing to say, a self-deprecating cut. But that would be misreading the intent of it. I put things together in my mind like puzzles. I like to find systems. Patterns. It’s what I do daily when I design things. I’m good at that. I’m also intelligent. Perhaps to a fault, and I get trapped at times believing that I know more than I do, beginning to categorize things, and frame the world through a perceived understanding. And I’m resistant to changing that framework. It allows me to fall into a trap of rules and reinforced habits that make it difficult to relate, and often create an internal conflict when things don’t square.
Case in point. I’ve always thought I was rational. Logical. Pragmatic. Truth be told, I am far more emotionally driven than I’ve ever wanted to admit. Just one of many self truths that were not evident in my blind spot.
I know nothing. It’s a liberating thought, one to encourage opening myself up. I hope that it will help open me up to others as well.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a recovery graduation ceremony. The program is very religious, in the same vein as my teenage years. It was hard for me to sit through the worship service without picking apart the sociology of what was going on, or dissect what I perceive to be the pretzel logic of christianity. But I could not dismiss the power of the statements the graduates made. The struggles they’ve lived through, and the accomplishments. Who am I to disagree with the system if it’s helped them out of a darkness I can only imagine in most of their cases. I might no longer believe in that theology, but beyond myself I know nothing.
I’m sure there are people have no idea how to relate to running a marathon, or running in general, but many have listened patiently and openly when I’ve described the role running has had in my life. Is it so much to ask of myself when others relate these things to be a bit more open. To admit I know nothing of their experience, whether it’s a 12 step program or Tarot. I need to listen to people with a little more compassion and a little less disdain.
After all, I know nothing.
Father’s Day 2017. Scene: Facebook:
What time do the first bands go on at City Stages?
Oh wait, nevermind. I meant Happy Father’s Day to all the daddies out there!
I chuckled, and cringed. I considered responding with a joke about trigger warnings. It’s a great Birmingham joke, sarcastic, nostalgic, all those lovely things. I miss City Stages. I don’t miss my father’s passive aggressive griping about the timing.
City Stages was a perennial culprit. Other times mission trips (when I participated in such thing––I’m sure the people of Colorado Springs really needed me to bring them the Jesus). Regardless, it was always met with a, “They’d never plan X, Y, or Z on Mother’s Day.” I’m sure empirical evidence might suggest otherwise, but there was no point engaging in the conversation. After all, for the first man in the state of Alabama to gain full custody of a child and receive child support, the world was against him and his standing as a father.
I’m not one to observe Hallmark holidays, or really holidays in general. My mom and I have quite the understanding about Mother’s Day. She doesn’t want a one day a year celebration. Instead, we talk regularly, neither of us burdened to maintain things. We split the who should call duties rather evenly. But Father’s Day. It always sucked. And you’d think if it sucked then, maybe it’d suck less after he’s been dead for six years. It’s worse.
The day brings back a lot of those conflicts, all of his put upon grievances. But it’s also the pinnacle of social media perfect life syndrome. Every happy post of smiling fathers and sons another little stab. Yours is dead and gone, and even when he was around, well, this day sucked too. I wanted to yell and scream at every one of the posts, lashing out. Instead, I reposted the above image as a silent acknowledgement of the day. And a reminder of the work and progress I’ve made in dealing with my father. His continued presence through his physical absence.
I know that anger wasn’t directed at my friends and acquaintances. I don’t begrudge them the relationships they have with their fathers, and I sincerely hope no one has to deal with the shit I dealt with, even as I know many have dealt with far worse. I’m angry at him, still, for his unfinished life. The way he seemed to cave in towards the end. The death spiral of fentanyl with a Michelob Ultra chaser. The whole six-pack.
And then the anger or frustration with myself. Listening to the slurred, delusional speech as he slipped in and out of consciousness on the phone. The state most of our conversations endured the last year or two of his life. The paranoia. The clear signs of opioid abuse and addiction. Clear, at least, in hindsight. There is no proof that my father died of an overdose per se, there was no autopsy. As the medical examiner responded to my inquiry, it’s just not standard practice with someone who had my father’s medical history. A half-dozen chronic conditions were in competition for the right to be named primary cause after all. Not to mention the 30 years plus of hard living and substance abuse. But it remains the case that I never pushed him on the medication. After all, he complained about it all the time, wanted to talk to his doctor to try to get off the dozen or more medications he took daily. Considering his long history of drug use, it didn’t seem odd or all that dangerous to consume in the way he did. It was easy to turn it over to him. He was a grown man after all, my being the “adult” in the relationship since childhood notwithstanding.
Exceptionally high standards and harsh self-scrutiny. Add a dash of depression and the result is a mild existential career crisis. I’ve struggled for a while wondering what I really want to do with my career. I felt stagnant, perhaps worked myself through logical reduction to think that my work was without merit, feeble in impact, worthless. Becoming aware of the cycle, I feel like I’m slowly working out of it. But sometimes the real push comes from unexpected places. Like an NPR story about the LA riots after the Rodney King verdict.
To paraphrase, the report frames the riot as a life changing moment for the subject. He was a teenager living in South Central, falling into the wrong crowd, etc. To prove his manliness he participated in the riots, stealing a boombox and some CDs. Looking at the floor he noticed a CD with a strange cover, a naked baby swimming after a dollar. Fascinated, he added it to his plunder. The first listen blew his mind. Smells Like Teen Spirit became the soundtrack of the riots, and Nirvana led him on a deep musical journey. He moved, and rather than falling back into the gang crowd, he started wearing flannel, became a punk, but eventually went on to school and is now working in IT. He credits that copy of Nevermind with changing is life, ultimately, making the riots a positive turning point in his life.
While listening to the story, I thought of the way stories of music changing someones life are commonplace. But what about the design of the record cover… the very thing that prompted the kid to steal the CD in the first place. I couldn’t help but wonder how would Robert Fisher, art director, and Kirk Weddle, photographer react to the story. When he art directed that photo shoot, did he ever have any idea that it might prompt a kid to steal it, and ultimately change, perhaps save, his life.
And, surprisingly, my mind actually turned to the positive, thinking of the unknown impact my work might have had in the last 14 years, 11 of them working for the Museum. In a college critique, I experienced the potential for design to change minds when a classmate said my poster for organ donation had made him reconsider it. He had changed his mind, thinking now that he would become and organ donor. It’s been easy to forget that anecdote over the years, or at least let it fade from mind. I create work, and outside my coworkers, rarely hear any feedback, with attendance or engagement with Museum programs as a means of measuring success. And even then, my work is only a part of the equation that brings people to the Museum.
But, doing some back of the napkin math, there have likely been 1.5 million visits to the Museum since I’ve been the graphic designer. I’ve designed materials for dozens of exhibitions, and probably hundreds of programs. The chances that any one of those given visits or programs has deeply affected someone, possibly changing the course of their life, well, there’s probably a decent chance. It’s a humbling thought to consider. It’s also the fulfillment of my decision to work at a Museum.
This is something I need to keep in mind more often. To stop and appreciate a little more often. There are many reasons I hold myself back from appreciating the things I have accomplished, or the impact I have had on the world around me. The internalization of so much self-doubt and criticism. I’ve allowed it to debilitate me for a long time.
“Loving compassion, this is my religion.”
Lama Deshek would soon begin the ceremony to destroy the mandala he had created over the course of more than a week in the lobby of the Museum. Generous with his time during the creation, stopping to chat with visitors, answer questions, pose for photographs, before the ceremony began, he noticed the many people craning over the barriers trying to snap a photo of the finished mandala. Looking around, he spotted a step stool, brought it to the side of the mandala, and set it up. Five minutes, if anyone wanted to come use the step ladder to get a better photo. Another small moment of grace on his part. After a number of visitors took their photos he pulled out his iPhone and stepping up the ladder announced, “last one.” And, realizing the nervousness of the onlookers previously, held his phone out and pretended to bobble it, eliciting laughter from all.
And then he began the ceremony. For a brief time he spoke of his belief that the central theme in his life is the deep loving compassion for all living things. Loving compassion, this is my religion, he said to the crowd of more than 150 people. And soon, though we all knew it would happen, after a brief ceremony, he took a brush and swept it through the mandala, 150 people gasping. Though we all knew the impermanence, we all still gasped at the beginning of the destruction, the lesson immediately and so clearly illustrated for all present. After a few strokes, he turned to the crowd, held a brush out, and gently invited them in to participate. In less than five minutes, what had taken a week to build was now a small pile of mixed sand.
I felt a deep appreciation for the opportunity to watch the ceremony, and a great pleasure in knowing that so many people were also able to share in the experience provided by my place of employment. When strangers find out I work at the Museum of Art, they immediately respond with some variation of, “that’s wonderful, it must be a great place to work.” I find a polite response, while internally reminding myself of the struggle it can sometimes be. Petty and fragile egos, passive aggressive back stabbing, pursuit of so many small agendas, infighting, and on and on. It can be infuriating in ways I’m sure many work environments can be. But, in this moment, watching the crowd, and thinking back to the hundred or so visitors that came to the opening ceremony, the many who participated in meditation with Lama Deshek, those who watched during his time of creation, I was humbled by the work I do. Humbled by whatever small amount I could contribute to helping share this experience with my community. It was a reminder I needed of why I wanted to work at an art museum. The power of art to inspire, to help see things anew, or discover a new perspective. The Museum as a place of exploration. And further, to be reminded through such a message as Lama Deshek’s of compassion for all living things, including, as he noted, for ourselves. For if we can not find compassion for ourselves, it is all the more difficult to have compassion for others.
Self compassion has been a struggle for me, and certainly my lack of self compassion has led to my fair share contributing to the workplace struggles mentioned above. I can not remember a time when it was not. And in recent weeks I’ve come to realize it more acutely, particularly in struggles I’ve had relating to others. Specifically in a romantic context, though reflection has made it clear how deeply this struggle has affected my ability to relate to other people in general. I’ve begun to read about self compassion. And after struggling to resolve many of the issues I’ve been facing of late, it seems like a good starting point to find a favorable path forward. I grew up as a “gifted child.” There are aspects that are great, but also some excruciating burdens, both self and externally imposed in my case. Growing up, I had support, but I also faced a lot of isolation. In my adult life I have not sought out the kinds of support that I might have benefited from, and allowed self-criticism to take an overwhelming role in my life. The desire I had as a gifted child to understand things, that natural curiosity, has also been a difficult urge to deal with when facing my internal struggles. I want to understand these issues I face, I wanted to find the solution, and when it does not come easily, when it might be impossible, the frustration is furthered. The existential crisis of one simply deepens, often through the tightening of self-criticism like a vice, squeezing out what little self compassion I had. I have often thought I had a distinct capacity for self assessment and awareness, looking at my mind from a distinct third person perspective, analyzing and probing. Realizing how inaccurate that idea often is has been crushing at times, but is slowly becoming an enlightening process. One I’m sure I will be writing about more.