Even You Leave

80
A PRIMER FOR FORGETTING
THE EMPTY STUDIO. 

Said John Cage to the painter Philip Gus-
ton,
"When you start working, everybody is in your studio-
the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all,
you own ideas--all are there. But as you continue painting,
they start leaving, one by one, and you are left completely
alone. Then, if you're lucky, even you leave."

Again, Sarah Manguso:

My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

What does it mean to be a steward of something or someone in decline?

In caregiving or hospice work (and ecological thinking in the era of climate collapse), this is clearly the game, but I catch myself wondering how it translates to making a comic or writing an essay or any other generative act. How is this season of my life a form of cross-training?

Often I think of creation as an additive process—raising a child, building a city, weaving a carrier bag. But what if, rather than moving closer to the realization of a vision, the putting-down-on-paper-ness of it all degrades the original, unthinkable idea? (However I pronounced “Hermione” in my head as an eight-year-old, for example, vanished the moment I listened to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on audiobook.)

I say “degrades” and feel the jolt of negative connotation, but I don’t mean for this to be negative. There are many ways to think about caring for someone with less time left on this earth than I have. Some of them are negative, depressing, dispiriting. Some days I succumb to that helplessness. But there’s a richness to it, too, even if it doesn’t fit the cultural model we’ve inherited for worthwhile heroics. Again, Le Guin: “[…] the Hero does not look well in this bag.” I try to apply the grandiose posturing of meeting an impossible deadline to the work of caregiving and instead I come up against the fact of death again and again and again.

I think there’s still a part of me clinging to the idea that if I could only become [blugh] enough, I could bring my ideas into the world in a visual form that fully encapsulates what’s present in my mind. And yet: 100% of the time, the page I draw does not, cannot, match the one I envisioned when I sat down at the drawing board. And yet and YET: 100% of the time the physical manifestation of that vision eclipses what I’d imagined. Maybe not in the moment, because I’m stubborn and I’ll usually spend a day or two scowling at whatever’s ended up on the page, muttering about how I’m not mad I’m just disappointed, but once I’ve gone away and come back and seen the page contextualized in the greater stream of the narrative, it’s like someone’s shaken the Etch-a-Sketch. Blank slate. The vaguest memory of love.

“It’s a gift.”

I’m an inveterate thrower of clothes on the ground at the end of a long day. Always have been. If I’ve gotten sweaty or messy enough to huck them straight into the hamper, great, I can do that. But the truth is I usually wear things more than once before putting them in the wash, and so I throw them on the ground instead.

All days have felt like long days lately. This means I find myself wading through more and more mess as the weeks drag on, until I have to dig myself out over the weekend and return to some form of sanity.

Living in Portland it used to be easier. Or rather, I had a lot more floor space to fill up before things became untenable. But now I’ve moved my expansive Portland life back into to my childhood bedroom and there is very little wiggle room in either floor space or desk space. Things devolve from “slightly untidy” to “Death Star Trash Compactor” in very short order.

A couple weeks ago, when I found myself preparing to cast yet another t-shirt onto the ground in the desperate rush to get flat, I stopped. For no apparent reason, I thought about how putting the shirt away would be a kindness to Future Lucy. A gift.

I found myself thinking: “I want to care for this person.”

I wonder if this has something to do with becoming a caregiver for my dad. So many nights I find myself exhausted and ready to be unconscious, but I rally to do physical therapy with him, or make his smoothie for the following morning, because I love him and want him to be healthy and cared for, and also because he isn’t able to do those things for himself.

There’s a certain amount of distance I need in order to extend compassion to myself. Future Lucy isn’t here. She’s hanging around tomorrow morning, readying herself to face the day. I want to make it easier for her.

So I’ve started putting shirts away—although not without a certain degree of attitude. Usually I am muttering to myself, but I’m muttering about how this is a gift, and that it’s one I want to give because I love the version of me who’ll show up and do all of this all over again tomorrow.

It works.

Ramble #29

Back on the Ramble train today. Well, technically a few days ago, but you get the idea. You can read the transcript or browse all the notes and associated ephemera over on Patreon (no need to pledge a dime), or just listen directly below.

October 22nd, 2021

[Rambles are typically 20-minute freeform audio updates recorded outside every couple of weeks. You can listen to previous Rambles here or subscribe directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.]

A Current Impasse

Historically, I’ve been someone who uses what I’m doing as an indication of how I’m doing.

I’m far from the only person doing this, I know. Capitalism and America’s Puritan work ethic really get off on doing as a substitute for being. But the thing is…it used to work relatively well. My creative work gave me The Good Brain Drugs, and so when I was working effectively and a lot, I’d feel good. A lot of my angst over the past year has stemmed from the anxiety of waiting to start on this graphic novel, which makes sense in this model. Now that I’ve finally started rolling on the project, hitting the studio every morning for three straight weeks, the creative blockade is lifting.

So why do I still feel awful?

The truth of the matter is that my creative/productive self is doing exceptionally well, but my emotional self is not. I have no idea how to deal with this information.

How can I reconcile how excited I am by this project—how tangled up in the joy of designing new characters and solving page layouts like crossword puzzles every morning—with how utterly depleted and depressed and grief-riddled I am in the rest of my life? I’m not used to there being a mismatch. Usually I feel stymied creatively and emotionally until the former comes loose and I hit a rhythm of making that scratches the itch, at which point the latter resolves of its own accord.

Not so now. Hm.

New territory.

Ramble #28

Some thoughts after a long absence from this practice:

Between the weight of the world and my new role as a full-time caregiver, I’m barely managing to do my own work, which means I have no time for the work around the work—the work about the work. It feels like this second kind of work is what actually brings people to my door. The art is fine, but the thinking and talking ABOUT the art (and the craft, and the business, and the being-human-ness of it all) is what I’ve come to rely on for my livelihood. It also gives me a sense of greater meaning within the landscape of my chosen profession. It helps me feel connected to something bigger.

There’s more commentary and a list of links to things I referenced in this recording over on Patreon, but if you prefer you can just dive in and listen below:

September 3rd, 2021

[Rambles are typically 20-minute freeform audio updates recorded outside every couple of weeks. You can listen to previous Rambles here or subscribe directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.]