Friday, January 24, 2014

three things

Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

-from Mary Oliver's poem In Blackwater Woods

This is what art is. It's these three things. It’s not about arriving or being published or anything measureable. (On some days I think it is, but this is actually about something else – it’s not about art.) On my clearest of days, making art is not about being talented or good enough. It’s not even about persevering.

Perseverance. That's a word that's been getting used a lot lately when talking about writing. To be honest, I don't really understand it. Writing is hard, definitely. Absolutely. But it's not something you persevere through - at least, that's not what it is to me. I think maybe it's more accurate to say that publishing or the pursuit of being published is a thing you persevere. (Granted, the making of art is different for everyone and changes over time, so this is in no way a prescription.) For me, writing is more like... like in September Girls when the girls refer to their beauty as their knife. Writing is like that - it's the knife that helps you carve your way through. That's what art is.

Last night, Joe and I went to see the film "her". (This may seem like a tangent, but I promise I'll come back around.) While Joe resonated with the themes of loneliness and depression but ultimately found the film confusing, I found it orienting and resonated with the themes of change and letting go. There's a part in the movie that's lodged itself inside me where one character says to the other:

It's like I'm reading a book... and it's a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you... and the words of our story... but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now. It's a place that's not of the physical world. It's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can't live your book any more.

I can't help wondering if Mary Oliver's poem and this character are talking about the same thing: life and mortality and the inevitability of things passing. Being alive hurts. It's why we need art - or at least it's why I need it. It's what the knife is for. It's why art is not about making money or getting recognition or seeing your name on a spine - it can become that, but at its purest, art has nothing to do with those things. Art is the way through.

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