The balancing act (travel version)

When we tell people about our travel plans, they always want to know whether this is a working vacation or a pure vacation. I am never quite sure how to answer that. My regular at-home life is hardly what most people would describe as a normal working schedule, and our traveling life doesn’t differ so much from that. But that’s complicated to explain, so I usually just say, “Yeeeeeahhhhh… working vacation.”

That said, there are definite challenges to maintaining the “work” part of my life while we’re traveling. At home, I do plenty of exploring, but I know most things will be around indefinitely (or, rather, I know I will be around them indefinitely), so there’s no urgency. Here, though, there are at least three museums I want to visit — and four neighborhoods, a day trip, three road trips, and two weekend events – and we’ve only got forty days remaining before we leave for Glasgow. So on any given morning or afternoon, I have to decide whether I’d rather stay in and work, or go out and play. Yes, yes, my work and play are not mutually exclusive, and that’s a huge gift. But the quality (and by “quality” I mean both “nature” and “standard”) of my work and play changes if I combine them. That is to say, I write differently in a cafe than I do at the kitchen table; I concentrate differently, and choose different subjects, if I sketch in a park as opposed to at a desk at home. In other words, I say that I write and draw/paint, but each of those comprises several different styles of activity, and I have to make time for them all.

As I articulated in my artist statement, I’m equally invested both in living/experiencing, and interpreting/making meaning of what that feels like for me. As I’m finding on our travels, those are definitely distinct processes – at least they are for me. When I’m out experiencing something (like Saturday’s day out), I am mostly just being. I can do some sketches and take some photos; I can jot down notes. But that is not processing; I’m just taking down observations, and I don’t know whether ever they’ll become anything more. In fact, sometimes the important observations aren’t even the ones I record on the spot. This is something it took me a while to grasp. Sometimes I’ll be out and I’ll think I’m having a throwaway experience, but I’ll get home and dream of it that night and think of it the whole week after, and realize that that building I thought I hated, or that experience that seemed pretty boring, actually made a deep impression. Then do I begin to realize what that experience meant for me, and how I might want to record it in writing or images. I’ve written before of my conviction that creation is actually just a process of organization and selection. I don’t know if that works for other people, but it’s absolutely true for me.

I was talking to Elwin once and he said he’s found that it just takes a long time to write something. I haven’t yet had the experience of working on a single project for years, but I do get what he means. Actually, I think we’re always writing (or painting, or whatever), in that we’re always thinking and processing and reformulating; with any given piece that I really feel is representative of myself, I can always trace some of its creative threads back to specific experiences or questions. The first version of “Chickens,” for example, was created in a burst of inspiration and energy during the first session of IWL. On the surface, it looked like our instructor just set us an assignment and then I made this cool piece, but actually, the piece came from a lot of stuff that had been percolating for ages and hit upon this particular outlet as its point of emergence.

Now that I write it all out, I realize that the way I create is also the way I make decisions about how to spend my time: taking a mass of possibility and sifting and selecting and sorting it into a manageable format. I mean, how else does one answer the question, “What should I do now?” when there is no immediate deadline? Some days, I confess, I just don’t succeed; I answer the question with “I don’t know” (which really means I’ve answered, “waste the afternoon on the Internet”). But most of the time, I know there are several viable options, and it’s my job to figure out the best and most important use of my time at the moment. Too much exploring means not enough time to record or processing time; too much processing means I run around in mental circles, dissecting the same things over and over again. Too much “going with the flow” means never prioritizing; over-rigid to-do lists mean never making space for spontaneity and opportunity. It is always a complex, delicate balance, and though navigating that balance is often exhausting (especially now that we’re traveling), I still can’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else.