Friday, June 06, 2008

Rilke, Art & Running Away

All my adult life I’ve been terrified of something Rilke said in Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke tells the young man to discover if he must write or die. If yes, stop whining about the difficulties and “build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.” If not, great. Forget writing, and go off to do something else.

I knew Rilke was right. I also knew I had to create to live. But my main response was “No, no, no, no, NO!”

Living for creativity took too much letting go and trusting (what I now call) God in every moment. It was far easier to find excuses for an easier, more socially acceptable way of life.

Only in the end, that doesn’t work. Believe me. I’ve tried.

I first “found my medium” carving a stone as a young woman of 21. When I carved, I lost all sense of my separate self, and all sense of time, sinking into an ecstatic state that lasted seven or eight hours. As an undergrad student, my stone was in the basement studio of a large building. I kept my tools on the fourth floor. I thought needing to consciously decide to up there to get my tools might keep me from inadvertently falling into carving. It never worked. If I simply walked past the building (foolishly/knowingly - "surely I can go that way without stopping. I'm exhausted. I want to get home."), I’d wake up eight hours later, too tired to lift the hammer and absolutely starving.

Which was exhilarating… It was also clearly addictive, out of my control, and terrifying.

My carving was very “successful,” but I left art for science after finishing the one stone. At the time, it felt like going into a wider world in order to know more, not like running away. But I had to wonder if I was hiding fear of artistic life under nice-feeling justifications.

My overt fear was poverty, but I’d also internalized the anti-art phobia of American culture. Artists were lazy and self-indulgent, and art was a “luxury” that wasted resources better used for other purposes, especially taking care of those in need.

I’d argue that all humans share the desire to create. So art-making couldn’t just be greed, pride or laziness. I’d argue that it took real humility to acknowledge the gifts I’d been given and take responsibility for them by building my life accordingly. Denying my talent was the height of arrogance, not to mention cowardly.

None of those arguments stopped me from dancing off to look for something more respectable and comfortable each time I’d resolved to live a creative/inspiration centered life.

In my mid-forties, I again made creative work my central business. This was going okay, despite the same old struggles, when my heart burst open with the call to monastic community, as I’ve already described. At the time I wondered, was this monastic call a way to fulfill my creative responsibilities? Perhaps in the financial security of monastic community, I’d finally free myself from fear.

Unfortunately the two calls were not compatible, at least in the monastery I entered. So here I am one more time, out in the big, scary world, struggling to live a creative call.

&@#*!Z%*! that Rilke!

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