Sunday, October 9, 2011

An Immigrant In The Country Of Love

This essay started when I tried to express my gratitude to my dad for a burger, and my friend Deborah for her generosity -- two cocktails, a beer, and another burger was the specific damage. When putting the post together in my head, I realized that I'd done a print expressing the theme for the last issue of Swill. I almost never incorporate humans in my art -- but when I did this piece, I used a photo of Deborah. Odd loops, odd loops.

Can you picture your house? Not the house you live in, not the house you grew up in. Your internal house. The place your soul lives.

The image of my house comes instantly to mind when I call on it. The sky is cool gray, the ground is warm gray, the house is neutral gray. No rain will ever fall from the roiling clouds that stream across the sky; they're heavy with the debris of distant explosions. The ground is blasted ash, worn into coral-like shapes by the wind; boots sink inches into it. You cannot walk without destroying the only beauty in the landscape.

My house is a concrete cube. Curved and pointed, black horns and thorns sprout in rough profusion along its edges. On each side, high and in the middle, there is a small window. There are no doors.

If you see this house, your death has been contemplated. Probably not considered with intent, but if you see this house? Your body is an object. Objects are broken sooner or later. This is war, and no-one survives.

The top of the cube is open to the weather and undefended. I never thought anything that flew would want to hurt me.

I have decided to move; you have taken me to a different place, and while I understand why I made my house the way I did, it no longer acts in service to my life. I still spend much of my time there, but I prefer to live with you. One day I will walk away and I will not feel as if I'm leaving home. On that day, I will become a citizen of the country of love.

I've been mistaken for a military man by people who have served. I believe this stems from my basic approach to life -- it can erupt in savagery at any moment, so be ready to fight all the time. I have consciously struggled my whole life to be open and available emotionally to the people around me, so it's been a surprise to find that there are parts of me I've guarded so fiercely that they've never been touched before.

Illness and poverty have stripped away certain illusions I have entertained about myself, and my place in the world. I have always valued myself based on utility. What am I good for? How can I contribute? What can I do to help?

And despite the kindness that has been shown to me over the years, I've seen the world as a fundamentally hostile place to a much greater degree than most people do. To the point where it has undermined my ability to function in the world. I know what it is like to be hated, and I know what it is like to be despised and I know what it is like to be held in contempt and I know what it is like to be feared.

Much of love is new to me.

I'm not talking about romantic love. I'm talking about the binding regard and affection that people have for one another. Now that I'm in a place in my life where I am of virtually no practical use whatsoever, I have been brought face-to-face with what I currently regard as the root good in life.

Connection. Kindness. Mutual regard. Affection.

It is easy enough to give lip service to these things. When you see them clearly, they are frighteningly powerful. These days I find myself periodically overwhelmed by the sensation of being cared for. The idea that I'm a passing concern in the minds of people I will never meet. The idea that I'm a source of pleasure and solace in the lives of those close to me. I don't sob, but tears flow painlessly from my eyes, and all I can do is endure the feeling that I am cared for, thought of, held in regard, valued. It is joy experienced with the same overwhelming intensity as rage.

The idea that we live in a hierarchy angers and frightens me -- but that anger and fear are being ameliorated by the notion that kindness is also an organizational principle, and it's one that has been brought to bear on me.

Here's what brought this home to me. What dropped right on the roof, where there are no defenses.

I mostly gave up solitary drinking a while ago. I stopped buying comic books more than a year ago, ending a lifelong habit in order to finance my writing education. The very last bit of my money ran out a while back, and I am currently living on kindness and the seeming likelihood that I may receive a disability pension.

This means that there are no little indulgences readily available to me. The tiny treats that I used to coax myself an inch at a time through life are, at least for the moment, over, and have been for some time. If something goes wrong, I don't have the option of promising myself a reward. If things go right, I don't have the option of celebration. There is nothing special at my command.

I missed this dreadfully at first. Dearth sucks.

But here's where things got squirrely on me.

I do get a drink and a smoke. I do get a book and some music. From time to time I get to eat at nice places. I've even traveled a little.

I get the small pleasures in my life from the people around me, and they are given to me because I am valued. Because time spent with me is a small pleasure in itself, a nurturing indulgence, and people like it. What initially seemed like incredible generosity on the parts of my friends has revealed itself as compassionate self-interest.

If I read a new book or look at new art or listen to new music, it is because the missus got it for me at a yard sale. So when I take in these aesthetic experiences, they are flavored by the knowledge that this is something the missus desired for me. She like it when I get things I like. It makes her happy when I enjoy them.

When I have a drink, it is because someone I respect and admire wants to have the experience of drinking with me.

If I take a trip, it is because my company is desired.

When I fell ill, I was cared for, and the manifest kindness of the people around me was overwhelming. And now, as my life continues, that kindness has failed to abate. I've always understood that I'm not supposed to kill myself because it would make other people miserable. I'm just starting to understand that to my true friends, my delight in life is a tangible and valued resource.

This is radically changing my experience of life. I'm gaining a much more feminine perspective -- I value myself based on who loves me as well as what I can do. As a result, I feel more valued both internally and externally. And the process of connecting with the world is increasing in intensity as it builds -- I'm a long way from equilibrium here.

What I thought was true was wrong. I am not actively hated. The world does not seek my destruction with intent. Most intent that is held toward me is positive. I thought I had a house but it wasn't a house. It was a bunker. You know who lives in bunkers during peacetime? Prisoners. Now I don't have a house, but I'm at home in the world. Uncertain but at ease. I don't know where I am, but I don't feel lost.

When I decided to take my art into the world, I approached it as though entering battle. My metaphor was entirely incorrect, and much of the emotional destabilization of the last years has been due to this.

Now I see my art differently. I see myself differently. And I see my place in the world differently.

I am no longer at war. I have been taken into the country of love, and war has no place there. I have to face the challenge of allowing people to be kind to me. Altruism is a basic desire, and to allow others to fulfill it is a kindness in itself, and I have to struggle for that kindness.

To ask for what I need -- let alone what I want -- is one of the greatest difficulties in my life. To do so when I am useless for nearly all practical purposes runs contrary to my rules for myself -- while I certainly wouldn't apply this to others, useless people should die. I feel as if I have been presented with a coward's life.

But if I'm honest with myself, I know that the feeling of having done something good for someone is terrific. And to a certain degree my resistance to having my needs and desires met is a form of hostility. A preemptive rejection.

I am learning to be open about what I want without expectation of either fulfillment or disappointment, how to be grateful without resentment, and most of all to appreciate that there is a mutualism in generosity, and that sincere gratitude and appreciation are worth the trouble just so I can feel as if I'm taking my part properly.

First I felt like a shovel. Then I felt like a broken shovel.

Now? I feel like a treat. I'm a stinky cheese, a single-malt scotch, a neat nugget of the kind bud, a hit of DMT. You wouldn't want to live on a diet of me, but for some folks? If they don't get a little now and then, they feel deprived. Being a luxury item is disturbingly pleasant.

I do not believe I will always be poor. I know how people who know react to my work. I think I will go someplace.

But I am no longer conducting a war. I am no longer staking outposts with my work, and I am growing less interested in chastisement and more interested in the cultivation and encouragement of life's joys and beauties. I can do Swift and Kafka fine; I can do the Thompsons Jim and Hunter. I can Giger your ass nine ways from Sunday, Bacon you til the cows come home. That end of the spectrum seems juvenile in isolation. I want to be able to do Bach and Renoir as well. I am trying to pry my arms open so I can embrace the world.

Hell is easy for me. And I never take the easy way.

I am not pursuing a career in the arts. I am using my talent and abilities to enter into new places so that I can find more friends. Thusly do I accommodate the trauma of discovering that the art world is a social world. At some point, some of my friends will make money with some of my projects. (This sounds dippy. It's solidly practical. Just you watch.)

This is the hidden gift of the outsider -- I belong nowhere, but my friends are everywhere. I have drank with winos and with millionaires, and I am realizing that my whole attitude toward the human species is racist, and that I need to get over it. There is an element in my regard for mankind that is genuinely hateful. I need to cut that shit out. People are people, and I like people.

I do not have a house in the country of love. But I have been made so welcome that I do not feel the need yet. I'm still a warrior, but I like having parts of me that aren't edge or armor. I allow myself that luxury both because of you and for your sake.

As I've said before, I don't love myself, but I don't need to love myself. I have a team that takes care of that little problem, and they do a much better job than I ever could.

If I had a great big blog, I couldn't say this. But this is a small room, we pretty much all know each other, and any strangers that wander in are either welcome or entertainment.


Thanks, y'all. I appreciate it.


Anonymous said...

Lots to think about for me here, Sean. I'll try to find some time to respond with the depth this deserves, if not this week, next.


Sean Craven said...

If you took this personally, I did what I intended.

Neil Vogler said...

Ummm.. this is one of those posts that is sort of quietly enormous, and I imagine personally momentous. As such, I don't really know what to say. I'm just a casual observer... but it seems like you're in a good place, a place new to you but suddenly comfortable. It's good to appreciate what you mean to other people in your life, and it's essential to be open to the possibility of joy and harmony. I sort of hate myself for typing that last line, because I sound like some witless hippie. But the truth is the truth.

Sean Craven said...

Thanks, Neil. That's exactly what I'm trying to do -- reclaim joy and harmony for horrible people like myself.

To tell the truth, I'm as happy now as I've ever been, and for better reasons.