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Mysteries of Adulthood

August 4, 2009

Long, tearful soul-searching session with Dave recently on a Saturday morning, both of us in our underwear lolling about in the heat. (Side note: I am finding Portland to be an arid place this summer. It is relentlessly hot and dry, hasn’t rained in at least two months, and there are no lakes to swim in here. I am desperately nostalgic for the plethora of New England lakes and ponds I used to blithely take for granted. Even the over-crowded bathwater of Walden Pond in August (my friend Serena used to call is the Pee-ond because of all the kids in it) now seems a mystical lost aqueous Eden to me)).

I talked about how I felt I had never taken a real risk in my life, never sacrificed anything substantial to the altar of art. How I’d always been safe, and making art had always been a safe option. I said that a lot of people understand that choosing to become an artist is an inherently unstable, risky “profession,” and that being poor is the price you pay for getting to do what you love and having lots of freedom. And that they consciously make that choice, knowing what they’re getting themselves in for. (Of course, this is probably not necessarily true: lots of people start out with something in their twenties, semi-consciously, not really understanding the consequences of this decision, in the blithe youthful assumption that something will work out somehow, and fetch up on the other side of thirty perhaps disillusioned, but also perhaps without back up options or escape hatches.)

And so I’ve been castigating myself for being a coward. For never having consciously made the risky, scary decision that art was worth that much to me, worth instability and never making much money and stress. I just glided along in my twenties, the way a lot of people do, never having to put a felt, lived value on what the real cost of being an artist might be. Unlike a lot of people, I had no student loans from college, and unlike almost everyone I know, I have no student loans from grad school, because my parents were able and willing to pay my tuition. I never had to assess, is it really worth it? How much am I willing to pay for this? Is the validation of having gone to a prestigious grad program really worth all that money? And just how frail is my ego, anyhow? (Answer: monstrously bloated yet shockingly fragile. Just like everybody else’s.) Now all the rest of my classmates have these grinding loan payments every month from the privilege of going to Yale, and I just skip along, financially unbowed by the experience except . . . don’t you always get what you pay for? And not necessarily so much from what you don’t personally pay for? Even paying something for something makes you value it in a different way than if you get it for free. (Mom, Dad: this to not to say that I’m not deeply grateful to not have to dish out a pound of flesh to Fannie Mae every month.)

Anyway, I’ve come to feel that I’ve never properly assessed my relationship to art as an adult (because I’ve never felt like, okay, I’m an adult, until oh, pretty recently, with a shock of horror — late bloomer, I guess), and it feels like time to decide whether to double down & recommit to it, but consciously, a second time, as an adult in fuller knowledge of the consequences and losses and sacrifices it entails . . . or back away, hands in the air, and say, well, maybe this isn’t what I want to do, after all. Maybe I want a real job with a paycheck, and being able to afford nicer stuff, and not feeling pressure pressure pressure all the time to accomplish some sort of inchoate, overhanging all consuming personal task, like being on an invisible spiritual quest in the middle of the ordinary world which doesn’t much give a shit, and constantly getting slain by the dragon instead of killing it and parading its head around town so that everybody can say how great I am.

Dave thinks it’s perfectly natural that I would be having a crisis about art at this point in my life, that it is a sign of maturity to be wrestling with these questions, with money matters, and what art is for, and big life choices like, how do we want to live? How can we afford to live? Where should we live? Should we have children? How should we raise them? How in god’s name does anyone afford to raise them? And also keep doing the work that is important to them without losing themselves to parenthood?  When will we know how to be grown-ups? And how will we know if we are doing a good job?

Some of the only dry ground in this quaking swamp is this:  I am so grateful to be married to Dave, who always listens so thoughtfully, and somehow keeps being willing to have these tearstained meaning of life conversations with me. We had our second wedding anniversary at the end of June, and bailed out of going to a fancy, expensive dinner at the last minute, because it just felt too pressureful, and ended up going to a no-frills sushi place, where the fish was fresh and nobody was about to write ‘Happy Anniversary’ on a desert plate in chocolate syrup. Just holding hands and occasionally bumping my head into his shoulder, I was secure in a mutually serene yet effervescent happiness, bubbles of joy continually sparking up from the depths and nudging my heart. Later we realized that we’ve so far failed to give each other any kind of gift or card on our anniversaries (all two of them), and then I think Dave felt bad, and actually did start to make a list of things he loves about me . . . but he never got around to giving it to me, and when I politely  enquired about it, he just gave me shit for not writing a list of things I love about him!

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Dude. Thanks. For making me laugh, and always, always listening.

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