I am not rich. Well, certainly, I am not rich by any credible numerical standard.
The end of the year 2015 was upon us only a few hours ago, and as we are wont to do, we searched for ways to neatly package and present the last 365 days, both to our own psyche and to the world. De rigueuer this year was the #bestnine, an automatic compilation of one’s nine most-liked Instagram posts. I couldn’t resist the triteness of it all. Falling prey to the pressure, I let an algorithm tell me what my year looked like in likes. The cumulus-like ostrich plumes I wore to La Scala made the cut (the dirt they picked up and my dry cleaning bill did not), as did the billowing blue ripples of the pleated silk dress in I wore in the Sahara (but not my cursing at the wind that uncontrollably whipped the ocean of fabric against my face as we strove for a shot) . Expectedly, this digital distillation of my last 365 days only vaguely resembled the year I had known; the year that awash in the sort of frivolity my best nine highlighted, but also a year that chewed me up like cud and spat me back out barely resembling my former self: though the photos represent some of the brightest moments of the annum, in isolation they are tantamount to seeing “through a glass darkly”. Nowhere in my highlight reel was the moment I melted into a stream of hot tears while typing a final goodbye note to my former coworkers after summarily losing my job; missing were the hours on hours I spent asleep because it was my only escape from pain of wakefulness; not underscored was that moment when my yoga teacher told me the homemade pear sauce I brought her could be my payment for class, and the 10 minutes I spent speechless sitting in a loaned pickup truck, reading a note to the effect that my fellow students had all pitched and covered the cost of an entire three month session of class.
And rightfully so that certain realities were missing from the imprint. There is something to be said about mystique: just as we know the duck paddles its webbed feet at warp speed behind the liquid curtain, yet all we see its peaceful gliding, and just as we don’t attend the ballet to think of the bandaged bleeding broken toenails in point shoes, but to be whisked away by its otherworldliness, so may be our mission to make art of our shared lives. Much fuss is made about social media as a place where people go to pretend their lives are perfect. I am of not of that belief nor persuasion. Mystique is not to be confused with artifice. I understand our “feeds”as life through a filter exposing what brings us the most joy; what inspires us and what we aspire to; they are no more a falsehood than the duck’s adagio or the dancer’s swim. The question is whether or not we recognize that “we see in part”. We know that our own lives are not perfect so why do we drink anyone else’s feed as potion, rather than recognize it as the concentrate or a fuller life that is diluted by solvents of all that constitutes living?
Pictured with the formidable Hayet Rida, a blogger who knows all too well that there is grit behind the glamour of this life.
No, I am not rich, nor is life a mad dash between champagne and Chanel. I am no paragon of the societal ideal of perfection and success. What I do possess is an embarrassment of experiences that I have poured my being into creating, the hunger to curate and to celebrate beauty, no matter how mundane or magnificent, and the conviction that breathing alone is not life enough for me. I wish to drink the alchemy of art to the lees.
John Singer Sargent; Portrait of Madame X, 1884. Oil on Canvas
Side by side with the human race there runs another race of beings, the inhuman ones, the race of artists who, goaded by unknown impulses, take the lifeless mass of humanity and by the fever and ferment with which they imbue it turn this soggy dough into bread and the bread into wine and the wine into song. Out of the dead compost and the inert slag they breed a song that contaminates. I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals. I see that when they tear their hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable, I see that when they bellow like crazed beasts and rip and gore, I see that this is right, that there is no other path to pursue. A man who belongs to this race must stand up on the high place with gibberish in his mouth and rip out his entrails. It is right and just, because he must! And anything that falls short of this frightening spectacle, anything less shuddering, less terrifying, less mad, less intoxicated, less contaminating, is not art. The rest is counterfeit. The rest is human. The rest belongs to life and lifelessness.”
– Henry Miller
Let Nothing You Dismay, an Holiday card illustration by NellyAba loosely informed by the style of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an artist who revelled in capturing the rawness of artists in, paradoxically, cartoon-like posters.
And what I am is resourceful. My year of most abject dearth has been bountiful because I have been forced to become creative about how I acquire my experiences. I have collaborated with everyone from makeup artists to photographers whom I wish I could remunerate in the currency they command, rather than tossing worthless “exposure and credit”their way, but who, for whatever unfathomable reason, believe in my voice and have shared their time and essence to create art together. Through these exchanges, I have been burdened with the unbearable weight of kindness, for such undeserved munificence sits on the soul with the weight of amorphous stone, for I walk around with an invisible ball and chain of gratitude strapped to my ankle, and the fear that I do not have enough life ahead of me to pay forward every kindness I have known.
Behind the scenes with 21 year old budding photographer, Tyler Leiby
It is this sort of kindness that kept me from breaking as I was stretched to limits of my tensile strength in the past year. When I recently interviewed playwright, Topher Payne, for The AJC.com’s AccessAtlanta, He described the crux of his holiday play, Let Nothing You Dismay, as a celebration of family, family being “not only those from whom you come, but also those people you pick up along the way”. Indeed, if anything kept dismay at bay this year, saving my spilt champagne (because let’s face it, my woes, however dire in my own sphere of reckoning, pale in comparison to the pain that is felt all over the world) and perhaps even pouring me another glass , it has been the motley array of blood relatives, friends and artists that have supported me in everything from painting my face to loaning me pickup trucks, and, above all, lighting my way with the incandescence of their faith when I had no fire left within me.
2015 marked 30 years of my clumsily mucking about on this planet searching for the clues of sophrosyne. For all the mistakes I have made, and all the living out loud, inelegant though that may be, I must declare, je ne regrette rien. Nothing do I regret. If a person is his past, then to regret his past is to wish he were not himself. “I am part of all I have met”and all I have met is a part of me.
I must be without remorse or regrets as I am without excuse; for from the instant of my upsurge into being, I carry the weight of the world…engaged in a world which I bear sole responsibility cwithout being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
– Jean-Paul Sartre
Though I have so far to go before I can feel any sort of pride in myself, I am without regret and thankful that I have been acquainted with the fire of transition. T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding is virtuosic verse about renewal that I tend to reread at pivotal moments, and, while the idea of waxing sentimental on New Year’s Eve (which already new year’s day somewhere) is against my nature as a cynic, adept spoil-sport and right wet lettuce, his words have been especially igniting for me during last year’s curtain call (also known as a few hours ago). I have wrestled for light in the days that have passed as I have been thrust into the belly of change. Change requires the destruction and rearrangement of one’s being on an atomic level; a period of transition is an unstable state; the interstice is often a dark space, as is the midwinter spring Eliot describes, a time when light and dark are commingled frightful fire:
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time , between pole and tropic.
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind , but pentecostal fire.
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
The only hope , or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire*
The only saviour from the burn of a half-baked existence is the sort of fire that shifts our shape and molds our mettle. Whenever the year comes to its Gregorian end, we exchange grand overtures, symphonically declaring what a good year the one ahead will be for us all. What we rarely mention is that shit is bound to cloud the rivers of joy despite our most valiant efforts. What we hardly discuss is the notion that triumph and defeat are one and the same: to wrestle with the Angel is to receive the blessing. (You will hear no talk of phoenixes from me). It is not one before the other: it is the coexistence of opposing forces that occurs in the midwinter spring that makes the difference. The challenge and the blessing are one and the same. This is living. This is growing.
The fire and the rose are one.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right…taking its place to support the others. The complete consort dancing together.*
Perhaps I lost my job last year to make a beginning of a truer purpose. Perhaps this outlook is simply what makes waking up less herculean. I cannot pretend I’m in that space where it all makes sense just yet. But, I can say with certainty that where I stand, I would not be without the belief that life has given me all I need to succeed. The seeds are in my hand, to seek the pastures where they will grow must be my occupation.
May nothing you dismay in the days and months and years to come, as you face every challenge with the conviction that adversity is to be milked for its blessing, as Jacob did when he wrestled the Angel: the fire and the rose are one. May we welcome each end, as a beginning, comforted by the knowledge that we are writing a life, choreographing a presence, where every phrase and sentence of our existence thus far has prepared us for the page on which we find ourself, and that with a bit of creativity and a little help from our friends, we will get by.
We shall not cease from exploration.*
Thank you for exploring with me, all three of you who read this blog. I wish for you a deeply fulfilling year ahead, chock full of the adventure and absurdity of truly living. Happy New Year
…Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
*excerpts from Little Gidding, by T.S. Eliot