Art Is Not Life

I was reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and she said to “write on my deep dreams” for five minutes.

For a long time my deepest dream has been to produce some amazing art, whether it’s the great Asian American graphic novel or just some wonderful fiction or portraits. But even though I still want that, it’s no longer my deepest desire. What I want now is so much simpler. I just want to be happy, totally happy in the moments of my life, whether I’m painting or writing or doing the dishes or sitting on the living room floor with Erik watching Lyapa be silly.

I think my unconscious first declared this in September, during watercolor class, when I realized I feel required to prove myself before others will accept me. To prove I’m worthy, whatever that means in the context: being good at painting, writing, cooking, or yoga; being well-dressed, cultured, generous, or witty. I don’t quite believe that people will like me just at my most basic self, so I try to show only the best parts of me — as if to say, “yes, you see I’m presentable and pleasant and talented, now you can embrace me.” So many of my choices, including my creative aspirations, are tied up in this desire to prove myself. Just as so many people feel worthless if they’re not employed or married or good-looking, I’ve told myself that being a great artist is what will make me worthy. But this means that every not-so-great piece of work makes me feel like total rubbish. I’m tired of feeling like that, and tired of feeling like each time I sit down to make something I am in some way being called upon to prove my worth as a human being. It’s stupid, and it’s over. I am already worthy, precious, and 100% unique, just as I am, and I am enough — in fact, I am more than enough; I am everything.

Of course I still want to do all the things I wanted before, but when those were my deepest dreams, it meant that if I died tomorrow I would have lived an unfulfilled life, and that’s absurd. When what matters is what I do, that makes me worthless if I don’t get the chance to do it. But if I aim instead to just be, as fully as I can, that’s something that’s always within reach, no matter what happens, no matter whether the moment is glorious or painful or trifling.

I want every moment to count, even if it seems like an unimportant little fraction of my life. I want to know when I die that I really enjoyed my life, and didn’t just spend it grasping and struggling for success, or sleeping through the “boring” parts. There are no boring parts if you compare living to not-living. Have I realized this because Tisha died, and we watched him do it? When Tisha made his momentous transition, it took a few days and it was never as climactic or portentous as you see in movies; it was as mundane as ordinary life — except that we were aware of its significance, so we were able to understand the inexpressible preciousness of every breath, every movement, and every moment.

I’m reminded of a certain fictional boy who deliberately goes to his death (identity hidden to protect the unread!), who thinks as he takes his last actions:

Slowly, very slowly, he sat up, and as he did so he felt more alive and more aware of his own living body than ever before. Why had he never appreciated what a miracle he was, brain and nerve and bounding heart? It would all be gone… or at least, he would be gone from it.

When we really appreciate the inevitable proximity of death, even the mundane becomes so beautiful. Just sorting the laundry is a feast: so many colors to see (even if every garment is a different tint of black or white), so many textures to feel, such pleasure in the repetitive task, and the movement of the body. We’re here, experiencing it, this moment that will never be repeated ever again in the entire history of the universe. When we realize this, how can we not recognize it as extraordinary?

This is my deep dream: to remember this. To be awake. To appreciate living just for what it is. To not grasp at success to the extent that I forget the pure miracle of existing, to not wear myself out with planning for a future that may never come, to leave off clinging, wishing, aspiring, when it interferes with my ability to relish just being myself in my life.

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20 responses to “Art Is Not Life

  1. a great post & an admirable aspiration! i try to keep these things in mind every day.

    a semi-hilarious sidenote: my life goal to be happy and just BE have had my mom gnashing her teeth for the last few years as she doesn’t understand why i’m not putting 100% of my energy into becoming the best career woman i can be! i’m too much of a hippie for her :P

    • Haha, it’s a hard concept for my mom to get her head around too. On the other hand, if being a career woman was what you wanted to do, it would be totally possible to “just be” in that path too. :) Maybe more difficult, but I’m sure someone who loves that life could find a way to manage!

      Is your mom more comfortable with your choices these days?

  2. This is momenteous…..a truly wonderful insight! Most of never catch the importance of just learning how to BE!

  3. How funny that you have posted this today. This morning I just couldn’t get Mommy to understand that I might want to leave this bay area lifestyle behind and make a new life doing something else or being somewhere else. I’ll need to figure out another way to make her understand because just trying to talk to her on my way to work didn’t do it.

    • I think it’ll take her a long time to warm up to that idea. ;b And while I support wanting to change your lifestyle, you know I can’t get excited about you leaving the area either. :( But I’ll try not to cling to your legs or tie you to the apartment… ;b

  4. I’m so glad to read such an insightful post from you today. I know that this outlook on your artistic output and on the individual moments of your life, can bring you much peace. I’ve also been struggling with this kind of internal, self-fed pressure for most of my life, and it helps today to be reminded that if I try hard I may be able to control my reaction to the inner voice that insists on constant outward proof that I have any worth whatsoever.

    Yesterday was a horrible day for my self esteem, and I felt like all the confidence I had in my ability to work hard and be productive was scooped out of me by an ill-advised and bullying remark from a superior at work. According to her, my lack of ability to learn hundreds of things by heart in a very short period of time reduces me to someone that no one can have “confidence” in. And of course at work, her idea of confidence is everything.

    I think confidence starts with the very subject you wrote so eloquently about today — being comfortable in one’s own skin and living in, and appreciating who we are and what we’re doing in the moments we’re living. I’ve tried to live this way, but at so many turns, the two opposing sides of this issue collide. It’s hard to cultivate a truly healthy soul in this often ridiculous society that surrounds us, and dictates it’s unhealthy view of success to us as if it were truth. Thanks for sharing this post.

    • Thank you so much, RĂ©! You’re right — peace is just what I feel, and it’s so much nicer than the self-doubting agitation that was there before. I’m sure it’ll come back, but at least in the moment, I’m enjoying my life. :)

      I’m sorry about the unpleasant work interaction. :( I heard it takes five instances of positive self-talk (or words from others) to take away the sting of a negative comment. I’m sure you’re as competent and quick as anyone would be in your position, and people shouldn’t be belittling new employees in any case. I hope she won’t continue to give you a hard time, but if she does, don’t take it personally. It’s not about you and your worth is not up to her.

      • Thanks for your positive words. It’s hard to keep looking for a real job (a job search is an exhausting job in itself) and to learn scores of prices and products in just four days. I’m like Marlon Brando in that I don’t memorize very well. I’m better at seeing things and touching things and having them seep into my consciousness. I wrote a poem for a play I was in at fifteen (just a one-shot abstract play at the end of an eight week summer workshop) and I had to have every line after the first fed to me by the director from off-stage. I was mortified.

        I’ll find out Saturday if my manager follows through with her threat to send me home if I don’t know every price. It’s kind of funny, this job pays so little and they give me only nine hours a week, and I have to check after I write this to see if my first paycheck (after five weeks) has finally come in. I’ve had enough of “Murphy’s Law.” I don’t handle nerves well, and my time crunch dictates that I ignore my soul. Yet, ignoring my soul makes me more nervous. So I’m attempting to do both and trying to ignore the little voice (big voice actually!) that tells me I’m an ungrateful idiot.

        Your writing style is very vivid and also soothing. I feel a little better when I read a post of yours like this one. Thanks again for sharing your journey.

        • Fingers crossed for you with this manager. :| Tell the “ungrateful idiot” voice that it is the ungrateful one for not recognizing all you do for yourself. :)

          Thank you for the words of appreciation — I’m so grateful to you for reading and sharing your responses to my words. I’m glad I can soothe you from afar :)

  5. Oh, I love this! It speaks to one of my favorite mantras: Always pleased, never satisfied. The irony of aiming for greatness is having to judge what defines this supposed greatness – having to place yourself on the scale. And the inner censor is one of the heaviest shackles, especially to creative work, then leading to inaction instead of action, which of course is no way to be great, giving reason to the censor’s ill logic to begin with. A potentially very vicious cycle. I think aspiring for the “next level” is praiseworthy but whatever excellence shall be is also ultimately a very personal understanding and choice that one can only know truly for him or herself. Awesome post. PS: Love the laundry as a feast of color!

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Anthem! I hear you — why waste brain space and anxiety worrying about greatness when it’s so hard to define? Got to keep reminding myself of that. There’s still a voice in my head that says, “If you’re not amazing right now, there’s no point in even trying.” I tell that voice, “You lie.”

      Btw, have you read Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness? Read it over the weekend and I think you’d like it! There’s a quote in the book that I’m going to write about sometime in the next week, on priorities. It blew my mind in the best possible way!

  6. Great post and wonderful reminder for us all. I love Natalie Goldberg…and her exercises are wonderful for engaging with yourself on a deeper level! Enjoy the days and the simple pleasures…a lofty worth pursuing! Thanks!

    • Thank you so much, Patti! I’m really looking forward to spending more time with this book (and Goldberg’s others). Her approach to writing fits well with me. :)

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