Tag Archives: artist

“The Heart Is a Bloom, Shoots Up Through the Stony Ground…”

The first sentence — is always the hardest.

True:  Sometimes, it flies out of her, like a butterfly trapped in between the two tiny palms of a kiddo who hasn’t lived for long enough to realize the fragility of her dreams, yet.

“You can’t do that to butterflies, little one!  They break their wings.”

But other times, she must cradle the cocoons of her beginnings, checking up on them, every few breaths:  Are they ready for the magical reveal of their births yet?  Can they leap out at the world that didn’t even suspect how much it needed them?  On harder days of creation, the luxury of time begins to test her patience, and it challenges her — to start.  To just:  Start.

Because starting — takes a courageous flight of fancy.  And only she knows — because she has asked for her creator to allow and to forgive her the hubris to make things happen — only she knows when her beginnings can no longer wait to happen.

The days, the moments, the creations that begin easily — are often easier to also take for granted.  And they can’t really be trusted, actually.  But the easy creations lighten the step and color the world with more flattering palettes of her imagination.  And even though, she may not remember the achievement of that day, she gets the privilege of spending it — while half dreaming:  Still the little girl, chasing butterflies, and trapping them in between her tiny palms.

Gratitude comes easy on those days of nearly no struggle.  And she breathes through the misty sensation in her eyes:  After all, her compassion has not expired yet!  And despite all the losses, it continues to give back.

On luckier days, life permits for such illusions to last:  That people are good.  That art — matters.  That beauty — is a common addiction of all humankind.  And that perhaps (please, please, let her have this “perhaps”!) we all speak a common language which may be determined by our self-serving needs — but that those needs belong to LOVE.  Alas!  How marvelous — are those days!

And she learns to savor them!  The days of easier creation — of more graceful survival, when the whole world somehow happens to accommodate for her dreams — those days she must savor for the future.  Because in that future, as she has grown to accept (once she’s grown up and out of certain dreams), there will be days of hardship.  She knows that.  No, not just the hardships of life itself:   Those, she has by now learned to forgive.  After all, they have taught her her own humanity.  They have connected all the capillaries between the organs of her empathy and inspirations.  And she understands it all so much better — after the days of hard life.

But the hardships of persevering through life for long enough to get to the next easier moment — that task can only be done by eluding herself.  So, she suspends the memories of better days.  Easier days of creation.  She stretches them out, makes them last.  (They taste like soft caramel or bits of saltwater taffy.)  She rides them out to exhaustion and prays — oh, how she prays! — that they will bring her to the next beginning.

Then, there are days, seemingly mellow, but that do not grant her easy beginnings.  On those days, she must work.  She must earn the first sentences to her dreams and earn her beginnings.  She may go looking for inspiration, in other people’s art.  And sometimes, that works just fine:  Like a match to a dry wick, other art sets her imagination on fire.  All it takes is a glimpse of a tail of that one fleeting dream.  It takes a mere crumb of someone else’s creation to set off the memory and the inspiration — follows.  Just a whisper of that common language!  A whiff of the unproved metaphysical science that it’s all one.  We — are one.  (Is that silly?)

And when the art of others does not start another flame, then she must have the courage to begin.  Just simply — begin!  It’s mechanical, then:  a memorized choreography of fingers upon the keyboard, the sense memory of the tired fingers clutching a pen.  On those days, she merely shows up — and she must accept that it would be enough, on just those days.

Because if she doesn’t show up, then she may as well consider herself defeated:  Yes, by the struggles of life and the skepticism of those who do NOT have the courage to dream.  To start.  To begin.

The courage to remain the children they once were, also chasing butterflies and ice-cream men; sucking on icicles in the winter and building castles under the watch of the giant eye of the sun.

The day when she stops beginning — she will consider herself a failure.  But until then, she must continue to begin.

“‘Tis the Season to Be Jolly: Fa-La-La-La-La, La-La, La-La!”

“Could we get more cashiers behind this register?!”

It was a woman’s voice, quite strained.

Sucked into the 400-page vortex of my soon-to-be purchased new book, I hadn’t payed any attention to the proceedings at my local Barnes and Noble, while I waited for my turn, in line.  But it’s not like I harbored any high expectations from this impulsive detour I’ve taken on my way home, at the height of the holiday shopping season.

First, I had to get through the parking lot of the main boulevard leading to this shopping mall.  Not a problem, I thought.  I could call the damn store — and put my item on hold; then trip out on my packing list, while sitting in traffic.

Then, there was the Korean owner of a dry cleaners who appeared on the brink of going postal from the absence of a Merchant Teller at my Chase.  I tried to save the day:

“Would you like to go ahead of me?” I sheepishly offered.  (“That’s some holiday magic for you, woman!” I thought while staring at the corrugated surface of her forehead.  She wasn’t sure about me.)

She took my offer.  Didn’t say thank you.

“You’re welcome,” I shrugged.

Instead of leaving the parking lot and joining the caravan of smoggy vehicles and their annoyed drivers, I left my ride at Chase and walked over to the Barnes and Noble.  Nothing like getting towed for the holidays, but my current grasp on sanity was a lot more important.

And normally, I would have to shoot down some sarcastic commentary in my my own head, in order to enjoy the experience of having way too many choices and holiday inspired displays — at any store.  But when it came to bookstores, I wouldn’t care if the sales people were promoting their merchandise in the nude.

(Come to think of it, I would actually prefer it that way:

Written on the Body — in hardback edition!”

The Breast — at 15% percent off!  30% — for members only!”

I could live with that, I think.)

Now, there would be a disheartening moment I could already foresee through the window, from outside:  A display of Valentine’s Day themed gadgets, Nook covers and writing supplies.

“Nope!  Not at all weird!” I talked myself out of succumbing to my traditionally sarcastic mindset.

(At least, in New York, I could walk away from it all.  Take a different route.  Go to a different branch.  Get off a packed subway car — and wait for the next train.  In this city, avoiding crowds also entailed avoiding their vehicles:  And those usually took up much more space!)

But look at how rad I was being:  Smiling at other pedestrians, communicating with the parking attendants and security guards!  Keeping my cool while riding the escalator behind a woman who blocked my — and everyone else’s — way with her shopping bags!

“She’s just being generous!” I talked my head out of a looming fit.

The three-level store opened in front of me in all of its giant-windowed glory.  Despite the chilly temperatures, the sunshine lit up the dust bunnies suspended in the columns of light.  They were sparkling.

“Did someone butcher Tinker Bell, on the third floor?” that one got away from me.  I wasn’t even being flippant.  Just funny, in my dark Russian way.  I smiled.  Tinker Bell:  Butchered.  Funny.

The end tail of the check-out line reached me as soon as I passed through those security towers that shortened my lifespan every single time they went off.

“Is this the line…?” I asked a lanky young man reading, by the look of it, some poetry.

“For the check-out?” he finished my sentence.  “Yes.”

No worries.  I could do that.  That’s all good.  Armed with a discounted copy of the Steve Jobs’ biography, I determinedly began losing track of time.

“Could we get more cashiers behind this register?!” was the first thing that brought me back from my trip.

It was a woman’s voice.  I turned around.

She was of a dignified age, with short hair bleached to the shade of being invisible.  What ever was exposed of her chest and arms was covered with age spots.  Her hands were manicured and clasping a Louis Vuitton wallet.  The woman was bejeweled so heavily, I could study her for the duration of my remaining time in that line:  A gold and diamond wedding ring, three other diamond rings on the other hand.  The Love Cartier bracelet (a.k.a. the Chastity Belt for America’s feminists).  A few tangled diamond tennis bracelets.  And all this — before I had a chance to study to her neck.

But it’s her face that deserved a double take.  Her lips, actually.  She was pressing them together after uttering her customer complaint and viciously staring at the skinny child manning the Nook counter, baffled by her request.  I briefly entertained a thought about the origins of her smile:  Was that the smile that earned her the family jewels now weighing down her slightly trembling hands?  Or were they a consequence of it?

Sensing my mind venturing out into its jaded ideas on this woman’s marriage, I immediately reined it in, and focused on the smirking face on the cover of my book.

There is a split, you see, in the mind of an immigrant:  ME — in US; then ME — outside of THEM (who are US, some of the time).  Or, is it a head trip of an artist straining her empathy against the people she means to portray well?

“If I Can Make It There, I’ll Make It — Anywhere!”

As far as I felt, I was still a fucking nobody:  commuting to my graduate classes six out of seven days a week, on a 45-minute subway ride from the Bronx.

Sure, as any not-too-lame looking chick, I tried to upgrade my style with an occasional ten-dollar purchase from the H&M on Broadway and 34th.  And I had even managed to go out with a few finance guys from Wall Street and realized they were no more sophisticated than my 20-year-old ass.  But despite my now impressive expertise of the Island’s neighborhoods and demographics, my favorite shops to browse and windows to shop (only the ones where I was least harassed by salesgirls) — I was hardly a New Yorker yet.

Shit!  I didn’t even know any good places to eat!  Despite the 50/50 scholarship, the pleasure of having a graduate degree — forty five grand later — was leaving my ass seriously broke.  For one, I could never join my classmates to their lunch outings.  And because of my immigrant pride, when shooting down their invites, I would give them reasons related to my studious nature (and not because I was eating beans out of a can, in an unheated basement apartment, every night).  So, for the entire twelve hour day spent on the Island, in between classes, I would have to last on a pitiful, homemade sandwich made out of a single slice of pumpernickel bread and a veggie burger, glued together with a thin spread of margarine and then cut in half.  The meal was so embarrassing, I would do my best to chomp it down alone, in the staircase of a school wing unlikely to be visited by my classmates; or, if I was getting the shakes — inside a bathroom stall.

And this was with my two shitty, part-time jobs accounted for!

And because my education was costing me an arm and a leg — and possibly my sanity and longevity, in the end — boy! did I look forward to the end of every semester.  Most of my colleagues would leave for their wholesome looking families — in Connecticut or wherever else purebred Americans had their happy childhoods — and there, I imagined, they sat around on their white-fenced porches and threw tennis balls for their pedigree golden retrievers to fetch.  For Christmas, they retold their tales of crazy, filthy, overcrowded Manhattan while clutching giant cups of hot cocoa and apple sider in front of electric fireplaces, and waiting for the contributions of cash.  In the summer, they’d allow their parents to pay their airfare for the pleasure of their company in the Caribbean or the Riviera.

I, on the other hand, would remain stuck in the Bronx.

(Well.  It was either that, or going to visit my obese stepfather and endure his interrogations about what I was planning to do with my art school education, for which he was NOT paying.)

So, for the last two years of grad school, I stuck around on the Island.  And whatever happy lives my classmates were deservingly pursuing elsewhere, I still thought I had it the best:  I was free and young, in New York Fuckin’ City!   Unthought of, for my long removed Russian family!

In those days, it was between me and the Island.  Just the two of us.  Finally, I would have the time and discipline to follow the schedule of free admission nights to all Manhattan museums.  With no shame, I would join the other tourists waiting for discounted Broadway tickets at the Ticketmaster booth in Times Square.  In the summer, I would gladly camp out in Central Park over night, so that I could get a glimpse of some Hollywood star giving Shakespeare a shot at the Delacorte.  I read — any bloody book I wanted! — at the Central Branch, then blacken my fingers with the latest issue of Village Voice, while nearly straddling one of the lions up front.  And in between my still happening shitty jobs, I would work on my tan on the Sheep Meadow; then peel on my uniform  (still reeking of the previous night’s baskets of fries) and return for my graveyard shift in the Bronx.

Yes, it was MY time:  to be young and oblivious to the hedonistic comforts of life.  I was in the midst of a giant adventure — that forty five grand could buy me — and outside of my curiosity, all the other pleasures of life could wait.

“Now, what are you planning to do with your art school education, hon?” one of my former undergrad professors asked me during an impromptu date.

Snide!  Ever so snide, he had a talent for making you feel not up to par — ever!  If he were to try that on me today, I would flaunt my post-therapy terminology on boundaries and self-esteem.  But back then, I was eating lunches inside the bathroom stalls of my Theatre Arts Building and wearing a button name tag for work, at nighttime.  So, I would endure the condescending interrogations over a cup of some bullshit organic soup he’d insist I ordered — and for which I would pray he would offer to pay later, as well.

“Well.  I guess you could always teach,” he’d say while packing up to leave for his rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side.  (Whom did he have to fuck in order to live there for the last two decades?)

He had a point though:  New York didn’t need another girl with her romantic dreams of love and starlet success.  New York — could do just fine without me.

But still:  It was MY time!  MY youth in the city!  His — was long gone, and I supposed it was reason enough to despise me.

But how ever unrealistic were my pursuits — and how ever hard was the survival — I still had plenty of curiosity in me to give it all a fair try.

“Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on — and TAKE It: Take Another Little Piece of My Heart Now, Baby!”

There are days when it’s hard to clock in.  But then, I see a single human face — and I’m on a roll.

Like the luminous face of a woman who, yesterday, made me wonder about my aging self.

She would have otherwise be found plain:  Quite tall and long-limbed, in unmemorable clothes.  A pair of ballet flats, a pencil skirt and a V-neck, all in jewel colors.  That’s exactly how my eyes travelled too, along her thin body:  from the ground, up to her face.  From humility, up to humanity.  And then, they got stuck.  On her face.

Under the haircut of no longer than two inches that was bleached to camouflage the gray, her face was completely open.  Readable, as if I expected to find my own reflection in it.  Having not a dab of make-up on her — like she had nothing to hide — she seemed incredibly open and present.  Up for anything.

“Like someone possessed by a clear conscience,” I thought.

“I didn’t expect you to be so petite and, um, lovely,” she said to me.  It was our first meeting.

I can always tell.  Especially when it comes to other broads, I can always tell when I’m being fed some insincere bullshit.  And then, I can always tell when a woman means it; when she’s got no time — or in my case, no tolerance — for competition; and she’s got a sister’s better interest in mind.  And I tell you, compliments from such a broad are a better ego treatment than a week-long stay at a beauty spa with, say, Olivier Martinez as your lover.

So, when she said that — I was hooked.  First, I studied her well nourished skin with seemingly no trace of plastic surgery, and I pinpointed the gist of her:  She was a happy one.  She had done the work.  That hard work one’s gotta do on herself in order to not be tortured with doubt, jealousy or self-loathing.  She had the balls to be happy, to like herself, and by extension (or by my hubristic assumption that I was heading in the same direction), she seemed to like me just fine, too.

I was about to learn in one, two, three minutes — she was also a writer.  It must be a common thing among artists, writers especially:  We just can’t fucking give up on people.  We cannot NOT like them.

Like every other fucker, over the course of a life, we acquire a history of letdowns and opinions.  Every heartbreak hurts equally.  After enough shit has been handed to us, though, some of us learn to pray to our Zen deities and pretend to surrender all control over the matter.  But I suspect the truth is a lot more painful:  Each fuck-up hits us below the belt and we hate it.  Because by definition of our craft, we cannot lead with disappointment.  We ought to stay in love with humanity, or at least in awe of it.

And why CAN’T people live up to their goodness?  Surely, they had to be good at one point.  It’s kind of a universal thing in the beginning:  We are born good.  We remain good for a while, and complete strangers get sidetracked at the sight of our still undamaged faces.

I wondered that as I studied the face of a babe who was being carried across the street by her father.  She was little.  Too little for me to remember what it felt like — to be her.  Too young to have a palpable fear of time.

Facing out, over the man’s shoulder, the young girl was moving her mouth and pressing her plum cheek against her father’s stubble.

“That man’s heart is forever taken,” I thought.

The seconds on their walkway sign were about to expire, but the two creatures — one still innocent, the other one living vicariously through her — were so engrossed in their chat, they were hardly among us.  Finally, by the time the man began jogging slightly, with his daughter bouncing uncomfortably in his arms (he had to be still training for such new functions of his body), they crossed in front of my left headlight.  Two more lanes of traffic — and they would be safe.

Bouncing on her father’s arm, the girl noticed me.  The green of her eyes got stuck to my heart.  I waved, timidly, with one hand.  Hesitantly but innocently, she squeezed her tiny left fist, then released it, and squeezed it again.  She was imitating my gesture.  She was still good.  Up for anything.

It would be horrific, I thought, to lose my soul’s sight.

Then, I went home and wrote this.

“But You Know: It’s All in a Day’s Work.”

Oh, so it’s gonna be one of those:  A slowly crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, with a book, after a rare discovery that today, you have absolutely nowhere to be.

You’ve gotta earn a day like that.  There is always too much work; work that often works  you — not the other way around.  The work of Gotta.  The work of Must.  The work that should not be rescheduled:  It could be delayed — but it’s gonna cost cha.  So, it’s always best to deal with the work now, for it might go away if you don’t.  People have choices, around here.  They might take their business elsewhere.  So, you say yes — and take the work.

I wish I knew it to be different, somewhere else in the world.  But I didn’t start working until I landed here:  In the Land of Work.  Some call it “Opportunity”.  Sure, it is.  The possibility of that opportunity tests the desire and sometimes pushes the limits of your capability.  But If you seize the opportunity, it becomes:  More work.  The work of Should.  The work of Must.

Perhaps, it’s more desirable work — work you wouldn’t mind doing for free.  Ask any artist:  an undercover poet or the girl musician with purple hair that works in the front of your office as a receptionist (but mostly, she makes your coffee and keep unjamming the copy machine).  Ask a cashier at a framing store or the teenager with dreamy eyes that bags your groceries at Trader Joe’s.  Ask anyone from the army of these tired kids working night shifts at your restaurants:  They know the drudgery of free work all to well.

Some may still have enough gratitude to go around.  If fuels them to keep showing up after a day spent chasing the work.  There is enough passion in them still — to find the reasons to peel on their hideous uniforms every day, right around three or four, when most people start watching the clock for the minute to call it quits.  But the tired kids report to work in which they rarely believe — but which they absolutely must accept until another “opportunity”, for work.

I know one.  I study her bounce around the narrow sushi joint I frequent weekly.  Every night, and sometimes during the weekend brunch, I can see her doing the work.

(Ugh, “brunch”!  If you’ve ever waited tables in Manhattan, for the rest of your life, there is no more dreaded word in your vocabulary.  It’s enough to lose your appetite for “brunches”.)

She’s got a regular name.  It’s sorta pretty, but I always forget it, and I want to call her Clementine, or Chloe, or Josephine.  She is perky, quick and funny, always ready for some improv with a willing customer.  When she appears at a booth, she tends to find a nook into which she fits her soft places like a kitten agreeing to your caress.  But you better know how to touch her:  A slight degree of nervousness or clumsy inexperience — and she bounces off, while waiving the tail of her gathered hair as a woman used to being watched every time she walks away.

Scarlett Johansson for Vogue

“You want — the salads?  Is that safe to say?”

I know for certain that just a register away, therein lies her bitchiness.  She is too tired from the work to tippy toe around me, for her tips.  And I bet she can tear into a man with eloquence and composure even grown women don’t have the courage to possess .  But she is always nice to me, at first; until she remembers my routine — and she begins to flirt.

“Are you an actress?” I hear the booth filled with older men ask her.

They look like they work in production:  There is a certain air of exhaustion, long hours, terrible diet and lack of exercise that I can smell on them.  There is always too much work, for these guys; so much of it, most end up childless or divorced. They are this city’s doctors:  Always on call.  Always ready to take the work.  Because if they don’t, the work might go away.  So, they say yes.

Clementine says yes.  But she shifts, from one foot to another.  The lines of her curves change in a warning that she may let ‘em have it, in case of their commentary about the work she doesn’t mind doing for free.  But thankfully, the men know better than to ask her the civilian cliches of:  “How is that going for you?” or “Have I seen you in anything?”

They do know better; for they have sacrificed their forming years on putting in the union hours — sometimes, for free — in a dangerous bet that the work would pay off later.

Later.  They would build their homes — later.  They would marry nice, patient, pretty girls — later.  

But the work may not have happened later.  The “opportunity” had to be seized right then.  So:  They said yes.  

Now, newly and happily married, or unhappily divorced, they still find themselves chasing the work.  And in the midst of their private miseries, they chase the fantasy of Chloe’s possibility.  Like me, they find her youth titillating.  But it is her fire — that formed in her pursuit of the work — that makes them hope she would stay by their table just a little bit longer.

But Josephine must go:  She must go do the work.  She has to earn herself the “opportunity” to do her other work, for free.  And she has to work enough to earn herself one of these:

A slow, crawling, rainy day best spent under the covers, in a tired body, with a book; after a rare discovery that today, she has absolutely nowhere to be, and that her conscience is finally at rest — from all the work.

“We All Live in A Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine, Yellow Submarine.”

Yes, it’s a hard way of being:  Living as an artist.  But then, again, I wouldn’t want to be living — in any other way.

And I’ve tried.  In all honesty, I’ve tried to be many things:  Anything else but an artist.  An administrator, a teaching assistant, and a secretary.  A proofreader, an academic, a critic.  A manager.  An accountant.  A librarian.

“Oh, you!” my college comrades used to say.  “You and your jobs!  You’re always changing jobs.”

They had known me for years, and for years — they had seen me working.  They had watched me giving a very fair try to living for the sake of a different profession.  A “normal” profession.   A job.  And they had witnessed me change my mind.

Back then, I wasn’t really sure which profession it would turn out to be, so I would try everything.  And instead of entertaining things, I would satisfy my curiosity by leaping into every opportunity.  Because I always felt I could be so many things; but I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t be anything else — but an artist.

Being an artist resembled an exotic disease — a dis-ease of the soul — and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t one of its victim.

“So, what’s your major this morning?” my folks teased me during our phone calls.  I was prone to changing my mind, and the flexibility of my American education confused the hell out of them.

“Still English, I think,” I’d say.  “But with a slight concentration — in journalism.”

“Well, at least, you’re getting an education,” my best friend comforted me.  She always comforted me.  And it seemed to bother her the least — my proneness to change my mind, because I felt I could be so many things.

Come to think of it:  It should have been easier, in my youth.  During our college years, that’s exactly what we were meant to do:  To seek.  To learn.  To experiment.  To be — so many things!

But somehow, my contemporaries seemed to be more certain about their paths.  They would be teachers or administrators.  The more city-savvy types were going into investment banking in New York.  And I’ve even known one biologist and a chick who went to work for Fox News.  But mostly, they would be teachers.

“How can they be so sure?”  I wondered.

Because I wasn’t sure.  I could foresee the pleasure in having a day job with which I could identify myself for a couple of years; but the romance of its routine would expire as soon as some bureaucrat’s ego would begin dictating procedures to me, on a daily basis.  Some of them didn’t like my language, or my dress code.  They handed me time sheets and forms, along with the lists of appropriate jewelry.  Some wanted me to tame my hair.  Others preferred I didn’t call my colleagues “Loves”.

So, I would leave.  I would always leave, but with enough notice and plenty of disappointment noticeable on my employers’ faces:

“It’s just that you had so much potential!” they would say.

“Then, why did you break my balls about my headscarves?” I would think in response.  Still, I would leave with grace (even if I was leaving over burning bridges).

After college, I would be the only one in my class to leave for an art school.

“But you should teach!” my academic mentors insisted.  “Most of your contemporaries teach!”

Everyone had an opinion.  Everyone but me.  I still felt I could be so many things, but I really wanted to be — just one!

Some seemed to be quite disappointed in my decision to stick to the arts.

“What are you gonna do — with an art degree?  You could be so many things, instead!”

And I wasn’t sure.  I still wasn’t sure.

“And how can everybody else — be so sure?!” I wondered.

After the first semester in my MFA program, the uncertainty about my profession would remain.  However, the overall vision of my life was becoming clearer:  I would be an artist.  I WAS an artist.  And it was starting to be enough — to be that one thing.

And so, there I was:  Willing to risk my life’s stability — the stability about which my contemporaries seemed to be so sure — for the sake of seeking daily inspiration.  I would take on projects that would fuel my gratitude and curiosity.  I would begin spending my nights in companies of others who shared my exotic disease — the dis-ease of the soul; and I would attend their shows and poetry readings, and loom in front of their paintings in tiny New York galleries.  And none of us were still certain about our destinations; and yes, we were still filled with angst.  But we did share the same vision:  Our moments of happiness were simultaneous to the moments of creation — the moments of dis-ease.

Throughout the years, some of my contemporaries have disappeared into their professions:  They turned out to be successful administrators and great teachers.  Wonderful teachers, as a matter of fact!  I would watch them moving with seeming certainty through their honorable daily routines.

“Still:  How can you be so sure?” I would interview a few of them, years later.

I had succumbed to my disease fully by then, and I would learn to maneuver the demands of my survival jobs.  I had surrendered.

“Are you kidding?!  We aren’t sure at all!” some would answer, honestly.

And for the first time, in their tired and good, decent and honorable faces, I would notice a slight glimmer of doubt.

“Oh!” I would wonder.  “So, no one really knows, for sure!”

Strangely, I would find no comfort in their doubtfulness.

But I would find great ease in knowing that I myself had fully surrendered to my disease:  The dis-ease of my soul — of an artist.

“Don’t You Know: They’re Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution? It Sounds — Like a Whisper!”

“People are not good to each other.

People are not good to each other.

People are not good to each other.

I suppose they never will be.

I don’t ask them to be.

But sometimes I think about it.”

Charles Bukowski, The Crunch

There is a passion, in all of us.  It boils.  It protests:  In Rome*, Yemen, Africa**.  It pushes to break us out of our skins — out of our boundaries; shackles, limits, laws; cowardice — and to rebel.

Some have chosen to live quietly, getting by.  They seem to cause the least conflict.  And if on occasion they hurt one another — it will be most likely by accident.  A tiny demand will rise in their souls — a tiny rebellion against obedience that has seemingly earned them nothing.

“So, what’s the fucking point?!” I ask.

And they reach for something that the rest of the world won’t miss much.  They reach with passion.  There may be an accidental victim:  He’s gotten in the way of their reaching.

But what’s a little hurt — against a lifetime of groveling?

Nothing.

Others manages to tangle up their egos in the chalk lines of the score board that keeps track of the rat race.  They are a special clan:  They measure life in numbers.  In things.  In values.  Passionately.  To them, there always seems to be a deadline in life, called Work Until:

Work Until:  They get tired of playing.  Work Until:  They gain a debt, then pay it off.  Work Until:  They have a piece of land, for a house or a deathbed.  Until they pay off a palace, a chariot, a marriage, a child’s tuition:  A Happily Ever After.

Work Until:  They never need to work again.  Work Until:  They can rest.  Work Until…

Nothing.

Their days turn into discardable minutes:  Five minutes — Until.  Thirty years — Until.  Another person’s life — Until.  Until, Until, Until, Until.  They pump themselves up against the lackluster crawl of the minutes.  They lose themselves — in things, in numbers.  In scores.  With passion.

Some actually manage to get there:  God bless ‘em!  They get to their anticipated Until, for the sake of which, they’ve sacrificed so many minutes.  And some have even sacrificed their truths.  Their passions.

That’s when the real horror happens:  At the end, they soon discover that nothing, in life, lacks a price.

Nothing.

And they find that the price of Until usually turns out to be gastronomical:  Greed.  Sacrifice.  Health.  Denial.  Nothing.

And that shit isn’t refundable!

“So, what’s the fucking point?!” I ask.

And:

What happens to LOVE — I ask — in such a lifetime of Until?

Find me a man who knows the answer to that.  For I have asked too many men who’ve given me mere accusations in return.  Something about time, or timing.  Readiness and plans.  Something about their Until.  I couldn’t really stick around for their explanations for long:  Their fear was eating up their faces — and my time.  So, find me a man who knows the answer to:  What’s the fucking point?!  I find me one who answers with passion.

Oh, and don’t discount those poor suckers born with extremely sensitive souls.

“It’s okay.  They’ll grow out of it,” pediatricians tell their parents.

Most actually do:  Innocence is rarely immune to life.  

But what happens when they don’t?  Well, then:   Please, say a prayer for those poor suckers:  A Hail Mary for the Sensitives.  For they are stuck here, among us, with no delusion to save them from the ache.  And no Until.

“Oh, but everyone aches!” the others object.

Still, the sensitives get the worse of it, in this life.  They stumble around, among us, like unwanted orphans.  Like innocents.

“But do YOU ache?” they ask.

Poor suckers!  They insist on hitting the truth on the nail.  It’s so annoying!

“Everyone aches,” the others object.

The sensitives study our faces for signs that they aren’t the only ones feeling this much.  It’s innocence, at its worst.  It’s passion.

“Then, what do you do — to cope?” they ask.

“Nothing.”

So, they devote their lifetimes to taking notes.  They write down our words, then regurgitate them, in a prettier form:  Poetry.  Others jot down their sketches, finding beauty in our fear-eaten faces.  And innocence, or whatever is left of it.  Passion.  Some put on reenactments:

“Wouldn’t this make for a better picture, in life?” they ask.

The others scoff, look away.

They do not have the time for truth — Until…

They do not have time — for a revolution.  

No:  They would rather spend their lives suspended until the arrival of Until.  Or, they spend their lifetimes — groveling.

Surely, there will be small griefs that happen until the Until, and they’ll complain and demand attention.  They’ll demand a change, but only enough of it — and only if it’s convenient — and never for the sake of others.

Because everyone aches.  And there is nothing to be done about that.

Nothing.

But what would happen if we gathered our passions into a fist and planted a punch?

* Rallies Across the Globe Protest Economic Policies.  New York Times. October 15, 2011. 

** “Occupy”Protest Turns Violent in Rome.  Al Jazeera.  October 15, 2011. 

“just make it, babe, make it…”

“We can make it!  We can make it!  C’mon, babe.  We can make it!”

For nearly six miles I was chanting this to the steering wheel of my car, yesternight.  I was caressing it, leaning my flushed cheek bones against its drying leather.  And when no one was looking, I even planted a peck onto it, with my semi-dehydrated lips:

“We can make it!”

I suspected this would happen:  I had waited till the very last moment — again! — to refill my gas tank.  And now, I was running late to a rehearsal — again! — with my gas light on:  AGAIN!

“God damn it!” I would have sworn normally as I sensed the neon yellow light on my dashboard, out of the corner of my eye.  “I should’ve done this last night!”

But that night, I was exhausted, thinking only of the sleepiness, somewhere in my calves and feet; and of trying to not run outta gas — again.

And now, I was sitting in traffic on a congested side street someone had recommended to me as a shortcut against, um, well… traffic.  But that’s what happens quite a bit:  Other people’s shortcuts — turn into my hell.  

So, I would much rather just keep taking my own routes; doing it my own way.

But then, yesternight, I was running late — again.

So, I attempted to surrender:  “We can make it!”

I had already done THE work, by then:  Five hours — GONE out of my day!  Grateful!  Of course, I was grateful — for being able to do it.  But fitting in THE work every day always required two things:  lack of sleep and brutal discipline toward the rest of my life.

And then, of course, there was the survival hustle:  Chalk up another three hours to that!   But I have long surrendered to that already, because I am the one who chose this destiny, this route.  I am the one who rejected a myriad of day jobs and hustled to get herself out of the drudgery of the restaurant business, as well.  I am the one who agreed to the chronic pain-in-the-ass-ness of a freelancer’s life.  I am the one continuously taking — and building — my own ways.  Because only then, do I have enough dignity and space — for THE work. 

And now, I was dashing across town:  To do more work.

Okay, maybe I wasn’t dashing:  I was crawling, dragging my ass through the overheated, exhausted streets of LA-LA.  I was serving my time among others with their stories of pursuits, and with exhaustion written all over their drooping faces.  And while doing so, I was resisting every urge to curse out the retirees existing in their own timezones inside their oversized Lexuses:

“Why aren’t you moving?!” I’d usually flail while studying the trail of break lights ahead of me.  Normally, there is no rhyme or reason for it:  only the collision of other people’s timezones.  And I have to remember that they too have done their work that day:  THE work.

So, I attempt to surrender:  “We can make it!”

The side street finally opened into a giant boulevard.  We flooded onto it, and the people coexisting in my timezone took over the outer lanes — and we got going.

But then:  My gas light came on.

God damn it!

I immediately remembered the poor sucker in a Porsche who got stuck in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, the night before.  I had been sitting in traffic, on a congested side street, waiting to merge.  Because that’s what happens quite a bit:  My shortcuts collide with the shortcuts of others; and we have no choice but to obey each other’s timezones.

“But why aren’t we moving?!” I kept thinking and trying to see ahead of the red trail of break lights.  Surely, there was no rhyme or reason for it!

Not until we flooded into the intersection, did I notice the Porsche owner sweating, swearing, cursing out the honking drivers, as he refilled his tank with a portable plastic canister.  A Porsche outta gas:  Times must be tough, I thought.

And we kept on crawling, yesternight.  We kept on — serving time.

Some of us had already done THE work.  Others just hustled to survive.

So, I attempted to surrender:  “We can make it, surely!  We can make it!  All of us!”

And I would make it, not just to a gas station, but to my favorite one.  I would pull up behind a tired, droopy face of a young man who stared into space above the rooftop of his vintage Volvo.  He would forget to close the flap on the side of his car, and I would honk.  He waved, pulled out masterfully and waved again.  Thank goodness, there were people coexisting in my timezone.

“We can make it, babe!” I kept chanting.

Forty on six.

Have a good night.

You too, babe.

The nearness of humanity outside the plastic bodies of our cars was beginning to soothe me.  The whiff of gas followed the short-stop pumping sound of the pipes.  I began staring ahead, above the rooftop of my car.

“Um…” I heard.

An older man with smirking eyes and crooked yellow teeth was standing next to me, while clutching a ten dollar bill.

“Could you help me out?” he said.

Behind me, he parked his ride, blocking my way:  A giant black Benz of a recent make.

“A Benz outta gas,” I thought.  “Times must be tough!”

His story would be about money.  About Vegas — and losing all of it, to the hustle.

Times must be tough, I thought.  But we can make it, babe:  All of us!

I surrendered.

Finally.

“There Is a Girl in New York City Who Calls Herself: ‘The Human Trampoline’.”

She was sitting on the edge of her barstool, with her bright red hair cascading over a tea-light candle, on the bar:  Dangerous.  

How many poets, I wondered, had lost their minds to a red-haired woman before?

Never a barfly — always a butterfly — she knew how to balance her glorious womanly behind on the edge of the shiny, brown leather-bound seat.  No way she’d fall off — from her dignity!  Her back had learned the perfect arching, the angles of which made it irresistible to the gaze.  Or to the camera.

It’s a fascinating skill that came with the habit of being looked at.  I knew that:  Beauty and sex were prone to that habit the most.  

Perhaps, most civilians couldn’t even pinpoint the hair-thin boundary between the real girl and the red-haired fantasy.  Most civilians just found themselves dumbfounded, with her.

But I knew:  I knew the game.  I used to play it all the time myself, before I got way too tired to keep up with the nuances.  Beauty was insatiable:  It demanded constant maintenance.  And for a while, I began relying mostly on sex.

But then, I got tired of that too, and I settled for truth.  Truth — all the time.  

Besides, sex was always much easier, for a woman.  And in my bedroom, I would keep all the lights blazing:

Fuck it:  Truth — all the time!

And if you don’t like it — LEAVE!

We had entered the bar together, that night.  Earlier, she had taken me all over the City:  Her New York.  She hailed all the cabs herself with the flip of that magnificent red-haired cascade.  And the green vintage coat off the rack of Marilyn Monroe or Betty Davis was flung unbuttoned, at all times.

“Boo.  Put yo’ hat on!  It’s fuckin’ freezing, out here!” I scolded her, always a few steps behind.

I was entering my own age of self-awareness:  and my most self-aware self, as I discovered, would be maternal.  And true. 

True — all the time.   

But she would just clap her fluffy cashmere mittens in response, and redistribute her lipgloss by smacking her lips.  The hair would be flipped again; and as soon as she baited some unknowing cabbie and we’d slide inside, onto the shiny, black-leather bound seats — the mane would be tamed into a low bun:  Show over, buddy!  

Her New York was very different from mine.  She lived on the island, I — right over the bridge.  She cabbed her way all over the place.  I braved the subways, studying rats playing house in the garbage on its tracks.  And when it would get unbearable, I’d come up for some air, in Harlem, and unbutton my jacket:  Ay, mami!

She made her living by mixology behind the bar, similar to the one we were now flocking:  with her low-cut blouses and perfect lighting hitting the hemispheres of her breasts.  Businessmen, cheating spouses conferencing in New York and horny boys from NYU would claim to be her regulars alike; and they would study their fantasy, while playing with the labels of their beer bottles and the hot wax of tea-lights on the bar.  From behind the rims of their rock glasses, they would gather their courage to start up a conversation.  And their drool would backwash onto the ice inside — if ever she paid any attention to them.

She didn’t have to, though.  That’s the thing about bartenders:  They aren’t at the mercy of our egos, for their income.  It was all up to her:  When to lean in, while arching her back.  When to cascade the hair, when to pull it back into a bun.  And when to tell them — TO LEAVE!

While I settled for bargains, she knew the importance of well-made things.  But for the first time in my most self-aware self, I was willing to learn.  I was open — to changing my mind. 

It was about dignity, I was beginning to suspect, despite my artistic premonition about some artsy suffering in deprivation.

“It’s crucial, for an artist, to be proud,” she said earlier.

Street lights were about to take over from the sun, as she strutted in her high-heeled boots through the shadows of concrete high-rises in Chelsea and red brick oldies in the Village.  I followed her, in jeans and flats, with the rest of my life packed inside a mighty Mary Poppins’ shoulder bag.

We were both competent, in our own way.  But she could survive on her credit card alone (although a girl like that never paid for her own drinks).  And I was spending my youth in a perpetual state of readiness for a take-off.

Our bartender that night would be a model by day.  Or an actor.  (I wasn’t really paying attention.)  To me, he was bitchy right off the bat.  With my girl — he was debonair.  We hadn’t been at the bar for half an hour, yet he had refilled my girl’s glass at least three times.  The petals of her lipgloss had circumvented the thin rim entirely by then, but the only sign of her tipsiness was in the pout of her lower lip.

Despite being seasoned by New York already, he could not have foreseen his purpose that night:  He was supposed to comp our drinks.

Which he did — in exchange for her number written on a bev nap and held in place by a tea-light candle.  He would even hail us a cab.

Inside, on a shiny, black leather-bound seat, she shook off the snowflakes from her red hair and smacked her lips.

“That number is fake, right?” I asked.

“No,” she answered.  “I would never do that, to a man.”

She gave the cabbie her intersection.  We were silent.

“But he’ll have one hell of a time — chatting up my shrink at Bellevue,” she smacked her lips again and pulled her hair into a low bun.

Show over, buddy!  

Back to truth.

“Steadily Rewindin’, Tryin’ to Make Some Hot Shit… Oh, What a Job This Is!”

Trying to write at a coffee shop:  This nomadic lifestyle of mine is slowly taking a toll on me.

The joint that I’ve chosen is not on the beach, but it carries the name of one.  And it comes with a specific array of noises.  Noises and egos.

They aren’t corporate egos, thank goodness.  They belong to life-long outcasts and beautiful, quirky kids who are stubborn and mad enough — to keep at their stories:  At their art.

Like this tatted-up boy right here, with bleached hair:  He is smaller than me.  He walks in through the glass back door, smiles sheepishly; grabs the handle before the door slams and shuts it, slowly.  Quietly.  He knows there are others here — stubborn and mad enough to keep at their stories.  To keep at their art.

Just look at him!  I betcha he’s got a story or two, and he’s most likely figured out his medium by now.  So, he’s certainly gotten himself a hefty ego.  And that ego nags — until each story is told:  on paper or on his skin, or braided in between the strings of his guitar.

The boy leaves.  I notice that the bleached hair is actually brushed into a well-sculpted mohawk.  He does the handle thing again, looks at me, from the other side of the glass door; smiles sheepishly.  Thank goodness — for his specificity!

Shit!  I’ve gotta focus.  I still haven’t written, this morning.

I walk over to the counter.  I can tell by the way one barista is bickering at the other, under her breath, that the two ladies aren’t really getting along.  This one:  brown, pretty, with striking gray eyes is yanking the handle of the espresso grinder like she means it.  I catch myself wondering if her wrist hurts at night, and if that shoulder of hers needs healing.  Does it makes her moan, at times, about “her fucking day job”?  Does it fuel her stubborn madness — to keep at her stories?  To keep at her art?

Just look at her!  By the way she arches her eyebrows and tightens her mouth, I know she’s been doing this gig for a while.  And she’s really good at it.  There is a routine in her movements:

Yank, yank, yank, yank.  Swipe across with a single forefinger.  Press down the tamper, tap the side with it.  Press down again.  Brush away the loose grinds.  Get ready to brew.

This girl is a virtuoso!  She’s found art in the most mundane of occupations.

Okay.  Shit.  Focus.  I still haven’t written, this morning.

The girl taking my order is also the one working the milk steamer.  She is a bit bossy.  Some may even call her “bitchy”.  “Tightly wound”.  “With prickly temperament”.  (I would know:  I get called those things — all the fucking time!)  I watch her maneuvering each pot of steaming milk above a paper cup.

She reminds me of a woman conductor who has once taught me music:  That older creature of grace was an untypical occurrence, an exception in the world of classical music.  This one — must be some sort of an artist as well.  And I wonder if she’s got the balls to be a pioneer, in her very specific thing.

“Hey, now!” she says to a young skater boy who struts into the joint, through the glass back door.  He has a headful of African curls tamed with a backward turned cap.

The counter girl lights up:  She still knows how to adore…

Shit!  Focus, focus, focus!  Still haven’t written!  And it’s already — an after-fuckin’-noon.

I wait for my latte:  It’s being made, with such specificity.  They never serve watered down coffee here, with an aftertaste of burnt espresso grinds.  Timing is very important.  So is taking the time.

I pass a row of tables.  Each is occupied by a youth at work.  The girl at an aluminum table is wearing orange earplugs:  This joint comes with a specific array of noises.  Noises and egos.

“Yank, yank, yank, yank,” — is coming from behind the bar.  “Tap.  Pause.  Tap.”

And on top of that, there is a hysterical rockstar screaming over the radio speakers.  I’ve been in enough of these joints, over the course of my nomadic lifestyle, to have learned good music.  This — is not good.

The radio goes silent.  I look back:  The bossy counter girl is messing with the radio stations.  A sweet reggae beat takes over.

The boy in a hoodie, at the table next to mine, starts nodding his messy head.  His face is wrinkly with pillow marks, but it’s intense.  He is so young, yet already so specific.

Just look at him!

Shit!

Focus!

Write!

The tatted-up boy with bleached out hair returns to use the bathroom.  He does the handle thing.

The bathroom door opens:  A youth of about twenty rolls out of it, in a wheel-chair.  Damn!

He passes me.  His face is kind.  He smiles.

The girl with earplugs gets up, packs up quietly.  Leaves through the glass back door.  Does the handle thing.

A Mexican stunner walks in:  Long black hair, butterflies instead of eyelashes.  She smiles at me, full heartedly.  Does the handle thing.

There is so much beauty in specificity!  There is so much beauty in compassion!  And it makes it so much easier — to keep at my art.

“Shit!  Let me get this for you!”  I leap out of my seat, to help a lovely young mother who’s trying to get through the glass back door, with her hands full.

I smile, hold the door; say:  “No problem!”  And quietly — do the handle thing.