Years ago, when I was 19, I spent a month in southern Spain. My best friend and I bought guitars in Barcelona and then buskered and hitchhiked our way from one end of the continent to the other. Back then Francisco Franco, “El Caudillo,” was in power, holding the whole country hostage. While Spain in the 1970s is far from the sophisticated, tourist-savvy country everyone loves to visit now, it was a place full of passion, the food delicious, the blend of Islamic, Renaissance and European cultures intoxicating. When I think back on that adventure, the soundtrack in my head is the evocative music of Isaac Albéniz and Manuel de Falla.
During my year of traversing Europe I was in a state of perpetual enchantment—by the world I was discovering as well as a very romantic notion of my own life. I was living on the road, on my own terms. It was glorious. When you are 19, the universe you construct has a seat for you right at its center.
I have traveled to Europe many times since. But this last trip, spent in southern Spain, felt like a particularly poignant reconnection with the who I was then and the who I am now. How quickly it all came back, visiting places I haven’t seen in 50 years and doing so, unexpectedly, on my own. (My partner Dave got called to India very soon after we arrived.)
Then there were the books. The ones you bring along are often exactly what you need. My choices, made days before I left home, included two that served as instructive foils for this particular journey: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, and Motherhood by Sheila Heti.
Both can be loosely described as auto fiction, and each was written when the author was under 40. Lerner’s novel features an anxious young American poet spending his year-long fellowship in Madrid at the time of the train bombings at Atocha station in 2004 (their 9/11 is 11-M.) The importance and validity of poetry in the face of life’s tragic circumstances is questioned as his protagonist, Adam Gordon, searches for his own creative center. (His concerns about where art belongs in a world that does not seem to care is reminiscent of the poignant last 100 pages of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.) Gordon is young, insecure and choleric, but his story is told with undeniable intelligence and abundant aperçus.
Heti’s book is a deep dive into a tangle of female-centric issues. Closer in concept to “autotheory” (as coined by Maggie Nelson in her book, The Argonauts, which also deals with many of the same themes,) Heti combines a light narrative thread with a relentlessly thoughtful probing into women and their relationship to procreation, love, creativity, personal freedom. Her protagonist is a 39 year old writer at the cusp of making a decision that will gravely impact her artistic and personal life. Heti’s ability to take an everyday notion, turn it inside out and upside down, is astounding.
I am thrilled when a book colonizes my thinking space, and both of these did just that. While this is content more frequently associated with the first half of a life, sitting with these issues while traveling in a landscape I last visited before my adult life actually began was kind of perfect. We make a lot of decisions in a life. Some are made early on, with careful consideration, while others happen by chance or default. Having the time to spend sifting through those layers is its own kind of journey.
Meanwhile the present day world and its circumstances morphed rapidly around me, in real time. Italy, where my daughter lives, became a coronavirus hot spot, and new cases were being found all over Europe. My private universe—although much larger than it was at 19, but still essentially private–was caught in that recurring question of how to socket the interior world with the exterior one.
The essential tension of that question is perennial. How do we attend—honorably and authentically—to both? Why can’t we just choose a group (Robert Benchley’s famous adage comes to mind—“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t”) like Myers Briggs’ categories of introverts and extroverts, where some of us tend to the interior space and some of us tend to all the rest?
Many artists, like me, work alone to create an artifact—a book, a song, a painting. That way of working is private and singular. And yet the questions asked of artists repeatedly right after 9/11 continue to surface: Does the world really need another painting? Wouldn’t your time be better spent working on climate consciousness or fighting poverty?
Many other visual art forms—social practice, installation, political—focus on exploring the social construct, but most painters aren’t good at collectivizing. Theirs is a path that is more quirky in its mysterious intentions, and more solitary in its execution. Even devoted painters, encountering occasional bouts of discouragement, will ask, Can I really keep doing this when the world is falling apart?
The only response I have been able to conjure is that no one can answer the question but you. The decision about what your work is in the world comes from a place outside logic or linear thinking. Like choosing a life partner, the chemistry of that choice is essentially esoteric, coming from another kind of knowing that can never be sufficiently explained.
Lerner has some helpful insights (where his use of the term “poetry” can be a stand in for any form of art:) “Disdain for poetry reveals an interesting cultural anxiety about the space for imagination in our lives…poetry is this space where every single particle of language is charged with the most meaning.”
Poetry is marginal relative to commercial forces, but that marginality does not mean the work is not powerful; and it is marginal relative to Donald Trump—it is marginal relative to these disastrous forces. But when we worry about the marginality of poetry, we are worrying also about the marginality of creativity in lives…sometimes the margins are important places to be.
For those of us solidly lodged in those margins, is there a way to be a bit better at both? Is it possible to attend to the interior as well as the exterior, to our artistic vision as well as our connectivity with others?
In the spirit of the both/and, this narrative now divides into two different paths. The first section, Part 1: Interdependicity, offers examples of how interconnectivity can be seen, valued and embedded in artistic expression. The second, Part 2: There is Water Underground, is a return to the private interior forge.
So am I having it both ways? I suppose I am. But at some point seniority wins you a wisdom card, and it is one I will use now. While both these domains are of essential importance, I know where my work is centered. And I am way too far down my life’s path to apologize for where I have clearly been called to sit.
Part 1: Interdependicity
Theater and film are by their nature collaborative art forms, making them well suited for an exploration into how interdependence is embedded in artistic expression. Two good examples are recent performances at the Huntington Theater in Boston. The Second City’s She the People: Girlfriends’ Guide to Sisters Doing it For Themselves brings an improvisational theater experience more common to a comedy club setting onto the center stage at the Calderwood Pavilion. (The Huntington’s season this year has included many bold efforts to expand the format of traditional theater.)
Improv theater and dance use the individual/group dynamic powerfully, in real time. As one improv performer expressed it to me, a great improv performer is the one who can make the people around her look good. That’s how a collective can create something magical night after night. It is, at its essence, all about interdependence.
STP includes some set pieces as well as audience-driven improvisations. But it is the energy of this diverse ensemble of women that is irresistible, spilling over into the audience who leaves the theater with a collective contact high. The experience of this more open ended, collaborative style of performing in a traditional theater is refreshing. And while the current topics of female disempowerment and disrespect have been fraught with tragedy and personal loss, the approach of STP is one of unwavering humor. Going for the lighter side does not diminish the commitment to bring an experience forward that is essentially female, and a hopeful one at that.
Interdependence comes into play in a different form in Sweat. Written by Pulitzer prize winner Lynn Nottage, Sweat addresses the social and economic impact of closing a factory in a town that has little else to offer its citizens. Like the Academy Award-winning documentary, American Factory, Sweat exposes the damage that comes to individual lives and relationships when the essential economic infrastructure in a town is dismantled.
Before writing this play, Nottage sat down to listen to the stories of people living in Reading, Pennsylvania, a city devastated by factory closings and poverty. This is a very American, 21st century play, one that moves close to the bone in exposing many of the intractable problems that are at the core of our increasingly divided political landscape. (For an extremely thoughtful exploration of the deep divide in American life today, I recommend Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein. ) The play exposes breakdowns in the networks of trust between workers, owners, friends, family, community. The results are tragic, and they are ongoing.
Nottage said she wanted to help Americans understand each other better. “My real hope is that after an audience sees the play that they’ll want to sit down and talk to someone who they’ve never had a conversation with before,” she said. “I also hope that they will understand the power of art and be more willing to engage with storytelling.”
Part 2: There is Water Underground
Below are some excerpts to hold this space–“where every single particle of language is charged with the most meaning”–and sharing in the awe of what remains to be discovered, mysterious and infinite.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
Praise the Mutilated World (Translated by Clare Cavanagh)
Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
—William Butler Yeats
The Circus Animals’ Desertion
Isn’t it odd, We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Letting the days go by
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by
Water flowing underground
Into the blue again
Into the silent water
Under the rocks and stones
There is water underground
Once in a Lifetime