Responsibility: Burdens and Gifts and Dead Soldiers
The central question in my life—as an old friend posed it to me the other day, while he and I were talking about possible future collaborations, and the foundations of such—is, how do I live in this world. Not just live, but live well. And what he meant—and what I mean, as well—is how can I live in such a way that accords with my sense of responsibility.
This is why I wrote a book called This is Love. Why I wrote not just any book, but this very particular book. It was my answer to that question of, How do I live in this world.
What do I mean when I say that. Well, in the most basic terms, I had a life-experience in my early twenties that completely transformed my vision of the nature of reality; re-wrote, in the most fundamental way possible, my understanding of life and existence. I’m not going to talk about that experience and what it was, here in this posting; that’s what the book is for, and why I spent the last four years of my life writing it. But I’m referencing it now, because of what it gave me, which was an overwhelming sense of responsibility: that I had to tell this story, that I had to share it with the world.
Which, I wrestled with, for quite a number of years. I mean, I’m thirty-seven now, I say that happened in my early twenties, you can do the math. The first thing I tried to do was to tackle it head-on, an attempt which was doomed to failure from the outset. On the one hand, because I didn’t know enough. Not nearly enough. Desire is one thing, craft and skill are another, and I quite simply needed a lot more practice in the art—and science, there’s most definitely a science involved as well—of creating a story. But on the other hand, I was also, anyways, kind of lost and broken. As such, I needed to fix myself. And one of the methods I found, or paths I followed, was to deepen my sense of responsibility; to learn more about what it means to be responsible to something.
What I mean is that it’s a feedback loop of sorts. Yes, you have responsibilities; to the people who love you, for example. But, in order to meet those responsibilities, you have to first be responsible to yourself. You have to take care of yourself. And what I mean when I say that, is that you have to be happy. Because happiness is energy. Giving yourself things, creating a world around yourself that you’re pleased to live in, can seem like a selfishly-oriented kind of life. But it’s not. You have to get your own shit together, before you can deliver anything of value into the world. At least, I had to. There are other paths, sure; you can be a Van Gogh, and live a life of mostly torment, and still produce work of real, true beauty. The idea of artist-as-tortured-soul still carries a lot of social currency, definitely. But not for me. For me, given the story that I wanted to tell, if I was miserable—and therefore putting misery into the lives of the people who cared about me—then that would completely undermine the story, would drain it of meaning. And I knew that; that if I wanted to talk that talk, I needed to be able to walk that walk, first. Even if imperfectly, which is how it was going to be till I got the book written; even so, I had to know in my heart that at least I was putting a full, true effort into being a functional, happy human being.
And so that’s what I did. On that one hand, did the work necessary to gain the skill and craft, the tools I needed to create, to tell the story. And on that other hand, did the work necessary to put the pieces of my life, and myself, back together again. And the moment came when I realized I had accomplished those tasks—enough, at least—and that it was time, and I was ready.
So, these are pictures of my bedroom. The same room, in the same house, that I’ve lived in since I moved to Austin, almost five years ago now. The first pic is taken from the doorway, and the second is taken from the corner of the room where the bed is. The chair in the second photo is where I’m sitting now as I write this. That table, before which the chair sits, is a table I built, specifically for writing. In this room, at that table, is where much of the book was written. The reason I’m showing you these pictures is that subsequent to making that decision — that I was ready to write the book — I realized, pretty quickly, that it was an enterprise I was going to have to build my entire life around. And this room is the direct expression of that process, the physical embodiment of a life that was built to write this book. And it’s not as though I moved in and bang, there it was. It’s a space that a lot of conscious thought went into and that developed, emerged, slowly over time. And I think, that if you spend a little time with these photos, you can see what I’m talking about.
To begin with, the photos represent the room’s basic duality; for me, there’s an invisible line running diagonally across the room, from the corner behind the doorway to the corner where the dresser drawers are; the first photo is on one side of that line, and the second photo is on the other. Half of the room is where I live, and the other half is where I work. A place to keep my shit, and a place to get my shit done. Obviously that separation isn’t, in actuality, that complete; there are elements that cross over, certainly. But I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time in here, and as such it was important to delineate these two separate spaces of basic functionality. To create a space which could serve, equally, those two basic needs. And I think you can see that separation, in what I’m going to call the “compositional life” of the two photos.
That’s the second thing, then, that I want to draw your attention to; namely, the room’s aesthetic qualities. There’s a lot going on, right? A lot of different colors, lots of different kinds of things. In part, the idea behind it all is just about stimulation, an environment that’s visually stimulating: maybe I’m stuck while writing, I sit back and my eyes wander here or there, find something to meditate on for a bit, and after awhile the ideas start flowing again. But it’s more than that; the curation of this space has a more specific purpose in mind. The room is a kind of self-museum, really; spend an hour in here, and you’ll come away with a pretty clear understanding of the person who the room belongs to. And what that means — functionally, for me, as the person who lives, and works here — is that what I’m surrounded by, as I sit here working, is a collection of tangible representations; representations, and reminders of, my responsibilities.
The quilt on the bed, and the rug on the floor next to it, were made for me by my mother. There’s the teddy bear that you can see lying on the front corner of the bed, the thirty-seven year old teddy bear that lay in the crib with baby-me. Photos of my grandparents on three different walls; next to one of those, a printed copy of one of my grandma’s poems. Photos of my family, of my friends, letters and postcards they’ve sent me. The teapot on the writing table — back against the wall, to the left of the books, and from which I’m currently drinking oolong tea — is a gift from my sister. All these are reminders of what I’ve been so fortunate to be blessed with in this life; the opportunities — the privileges — which those blessings have opened up for me.
And then there are other items, for which the relational value is more abstracted, maybe, but still very clear to me. The weird head on the shelf at the top of the first photo, for example, or the backpack on the floor in the corner (yes, for those of you who are wondering, it is in fact a Lisa Frank backpack) in the second photo. It would be too much of a divergence, now, to explain where those things come from, too long of a story; suffice it to say, for my purposes here, that they are objects which remind me of my own inborn gifts, of my specific, highly individual talents and capacities.
The point that I’m making with all of this is that the room is a functional space; a space that was designed not only to enable me to write the book, but to tell me why I was writing it; to offer up an ongoing series of reminders of the numerous ways in which I have been extraordinarily blessed in this life. To reiterate: blessings=gifts=opportunities=privileges. And to me, what privileges do, is they entail responsibilities.
This is a close-up of a section of the fourth wall in the room, the wall next to the bed (most of the rest of the wall is blank). Compositionally — I mean considering the wall as an entire composition, which it is — the central element, around which the composition is built, is the large square in the lower-right corner; which, you can probably tell, is a full sheet of newspaper. It’s a sheet from the Wednesday, March 19th, 2010 edition of the NY Times. In the upper left hand corner, there’s a box of explanatory print, titled “Faces of the Fallen”. And what it is, what occupies the rest of the sheet, is a bunch of photos of dead soldiers. Close-up photos of the faces of dead soldiers, gathered from the “courtesy of family members, funeral homes, high schools, local newspapers”, and a number of other sources. Some of the faces are serious, some are smiling, they run through a full and varied gamut of expressions. Each photo is captioned with that particular soldier’s name, age, and hometown. They come from all across the country; some of them are older, but the great majority are in their twenties. And all of them are dead. All of them, each and every one, died in a far-off foreign land, far away from home.
Did they become soldiers in order to fight for a cause they believed in? Or did they become soldiers because they came from broken homes, poverty-stricken backgrounds, and lives whose opportunities — and futures — were generally few, bleak and dismal? From what I can tell of the world and the way it works, my presumption is the latter. But I don’t know, and I won’t ever know. It’s not a question I can ask them, because all of them are dead now. All I know, really, is that they died violent deaths, well short of what would’ve been their natural life-spans. That their lives and stories ended abruptly, without fanfare, on strange and foreign ground, far away from home.
War is a terrible thing. It is humanity in its most egregiously immature state: I can’t find agreement with you, so I’m going to wipe you off the face of the earth. There are plenty of people in this world with whose opinions I have incredibly strong, vehement disagreement. I have yet to consider — at all, in any way, shape or form — that killing those people is a viable solution to those disagreements. For any number of incredibly obvious reasons, the idea that I would kill someone because I disagree with them, is an incredibly stupid idea. I hate war. I hate it because of the sadness and despair it engenders, because of the way it despoils the resources of human lives, because of the way it simply, mindlessly destroys things. But most of all I hate it because it is lazy and faithless; because it is a mechanism that gives up in the face of adversity, and that abandons the idea that we can keep working until we find a common ground.
It took me a long time to find an answer to the question of “what am I going to do with my life”; at least, functionally. But while I was searching for that answer, it was always with the clear, strong conviction that whatever I did, I wanted to work to make the world a better place. Something I carried not just as a desire, but as a sense of responsibility. And eventually, of course, I did find a functional vehicle, one which I chose because I thought it maximized both potential and opportunity; because I thought it was the vehicle, the method, through which I could have the greatest possible impact, towards that goal of making the world a better place. Namely, to write a book; a very particular book, called This is Love. And while it was a decision that I made with a clear head, it was also a decision that, honestly, scared the shit out of me.
Because I had the luxury — the rare privilege — of even being able to make that choice, had been afforded the combination of gifts and opportunities to even make that choice available to me. And as such, that maybe I was just squandering it all; wasting all of it, in pursuit of a solipsistic ego-centered enterprise that would have no impact, on anything, whatsoever. You’re writing a book about love, in order to fight against war, poverty, hunger, etc. so forth and so on?…yeah, okay, well then you’re totally crazy. Is what the voice in my head said, over and over again. Especially at the outset, when the question of whether or not I could, in fact, write an actual book, could capture the story that I wanted to capture, was still an incredibly real question. Yeah, very much, the whole thing really scared me.
But adhering to that sense of responsibility is what kept me going. Over time, especially. Because it evolved from that large-scale, world-saving type of burden; which, I mean, c’mon, no one thing is going to “save the world”, that’s not how things work, and in the end it’s a misguided enterprise, really. Instead, what I found was a much more isolated sense of responsibility; namely, to any given individual reader. To the time that I, or the author of any artistic work, am asking you to give me. Yes, I still have the dead soldiers on my wall, and other things in this room which remind me of those larger reasons, those more abstract senses of obligation. But in the end, what I found most enduring, and compelling, was the sense of responsibility to individual human beings who are giving me their very precious time; the sense of responsibility towards crafting an experience that honored the gift of that time, and rewarded it in kind.
Maybe that will lead, in some way or another, to there being less dead soldiers in the world. Maybe it won’t. I don’t really know. I’m a normal human being, and thus I don’t possess the power to see into the future. I just worked with what I had to work with, that conceptual notion which combines a sense of both burden and purpose. Responsibility.