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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