What do you want to do with your life? pt. 2

Continued from Part 1

I wish I could be in college right now, for the first time. I love a lot of things today that I had no clue about back when I was actually going through college. The first book I read after graduating was Middlemarch by George Eliot. I had always loved to read, and I thought I read a lot. But I really didn’t. I barely even knew what I liked to read. I can’t say I’d ever read a book before that was “life changing”. Middlemarch was revolutionary for me because when I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself: Is this the best book I’ve ever read? I think this is the best book I’ve ever read. Why have I never read this before? What the hell have I been doing?

This is my copy and I love it so much.

And I’ve spent the years since then hyper-focused on making up for all the reading I didn’t do back when I was in school. I always say that the one constant good about my job is that it affords me a lot of time to read.

I’ve learned so much in the process. Reading Tolstoy during a time when I felt spiritually lost was the catalyst for me renewing my faith in God. Who, in a time of spiritual crisis, could possibly be left unaffected by Levin’s story in Anna Karenina? Or Pierre’s in War & Peace? Resurrection was so bold and unapologetic in its didacticism and I felt so challenged by it that I was left with a greater sense of confidence in my convictions I had previously been ashamed of.

Russian literature became a focus of mine. I have yet to make peace with the fact that it was left out of my formal education almost entirely–“almost,” because we did read The Cherry Orchard once in high school. I guess that was sufficient? I could go on for ages (take this as a warning) about how depressing it is that American students are only really exposed to American and English literature during their high school years. We talk a lot about diversity in authorship these days, and how to make room for more women and ethnic minorities among the authors of standard “classics” normally touched upon in the high school curriculum. I don’t really care to get too involved in that debate. We’re failing at including female voices and black voices, without a doubt. It’s a major failure in the culture at large. Remember seeing that incredible breakdown on film dialogue? I’m sure the dialogue in today’s best-selling books would fare much better, but that isn’t necessarily reflected where authorship is concerned and how it’s addressed in the high school classroom.

I’m getting a little off-topic. The reason I don’t want to get too bogged down in that specific debate is because if I’m “speaking my truth,” I think of Americans’ fixation on America as just as large of a problem. Do we even care at all about the rest of the world? The less we engage with the artistic output of other countries, the more foreign they’re going to seem to us as people. Americans have no qualms about practicing cultural isolationism, even in institutions of higher education. When we study literature, we study our own literature. We create an echo chamber and then we’re delusional enough to award degrees in it.

In the years following college graduation, I’ve learned that I have no particular affection or preference for American literature, film, or art. I used to think I preferred it, but that was all I knew. It’s pretty easy to have a preference for something when you have nothing to compare it to.

I entered college thinking that I knew what I liked. My focus was always on the arts, so I’ll keep these remarks along those lines.

I had no clue how great a book could be because I’d never read much of anything outside of the texts assigned in school. I rarely watched films that weren’t American productions, or at the very least, films with English-speaking actors. And I thought I loved these things! They were critically acclaimed! I was having fun and getting “cultured”–L to the O to the L. When I first signed up for Netflix and was getting DVDs mailed to my house, I watched a new movie nearly every night. This was one of my passions.

When I entered college and declared as an English major, it didn’t last long for various reasons. See previous post.

I should probably be glad that I took a different path. I was friends with enough English majors to know that they didn’t get to read Middlemarch either, anyway–at least not in school. Is it too long or something? I don’t get it. Here’s a hot take: books you read in school should be difficult. You should feel challenged by them. Your teacher is not mean or evil just because they might make you read something that isn’t easy to digest. Just the other day I had to listen to my 70-something-year-old coworker rant about a book he was assigned to read for class. In his words, his professor is a stupid idiot for assigning it and shouldn’t be allowed to teach anything. Why? Because it’s written in a stream-of-consciousness manner and my coworker thinks any book written in such a manner is garbage. God help his professor. It can’t be easy teaching a bunch of young adults who think they know everything, let alone a 70-year-old man who thinks he knows everything. Why even be in school at all? You know everything. Leave.

Maybe the books I enjoy now would’ve been lost on me when I was a teenager, or possibly even in college. It’s difficult to say for certain. I would love to have the chance again to study with intensity something that I love. I don’t mean to imply that college is wasted on young people. I do think that expecting any significant level of insight from young people whose brains are still developing is a Big Ask. And yet we expect them to know and decide what they want to do with their lives before they’ve ever really lived. If college were free, this would be no big deal.

I don’t know if I’ve actually gained any insight in regard to a future “dream” career. I was hoping to someday discover deep within myself some kind of passion for accounting that had been lying dormant all my life. Then I’d just go into the family business and I’d be set. I don’t think that’s going to happen though. Maybe some of us aren’t meant to make loads of money. Maybe it’s a good thing that I’m one of those people, if indeed I am. Maybe I’m able to deal with it better than someone else would.

What I’m saying might contradict what we’re taught to believe about the American dream. Plenty have called it out as a bogus concept, often citing examples of how opportunities for success simply aren’t made available to everyone equally. It’s a good point, and I get it. I just want to question what makes it worth pursuing in the first place.

Being able to choose your own path in life regardless of your background is a relatively recent human invention. Sometimes I think true happiness would be easier to find if we weren’t seeking the answer in our choice of career. Your job is just one small part of you.

Right now I’m thinking of those faith-based organizations that preach the “Prosperity Gospel.” Here’s another hot take: they are gross and they should be ashamed of themselves. If you’re reading this and you think God not only cares how much money you make, but wants to actively help you make MORE, you’re gross. Close this tab, exit your browser window, throw your computer out the window along with yourself–whatever you have to do. You are gross. You are harming yourself and the people around you.

It’s easy to mock prosperity theology, and to tell its believers to off themselves, but I think a lot of us live by its principles without realizing it. We idolize money. We idolize people who have it. We’re taught to pursue it even if the pursuit of it destroys our soul. We refuse to be content with what we do have. We assign value to actions based on how lucrative they are. Just recently, I skipped a shift I was supposed to work at the Humane Society because it got in the way of me going to my new part-time job. The only reason was money. One pays me, the other doesn’t. Which one I actually enjoy doing more–that didn’t factor in at all. I’d rather be with the dogs (note to self: new epitaph idea). But I didn’t go because they don’t pay me to go.

It’s almost time to end this. I meant to talk about a lot of other things–mainly just movies and books I’ve loved. I can’t find an easy way to go back and add any of that in among what I’ve already written. I’m sure I’ll have other opportunities in future posts. This is getting long enough as it is. I’m at work right now, but I’d rather be with the dogs, if ya know what I mean.

What do you want to do with your life?

How do you answer that question?

The answer can change from year to year, maybe even more frequently than that for some of us. I don’t think about it as much anymore, and when I realized that, I wondered Why?

Do you remember the days of being asked what you wanted to be when you grew up? I was trying to recall how I used to respond to that question. As children, it was something we were asked often in school throughout the years. We might be asked to draw pictures of our future selves, doing our dream job, sometimes accompanied by a little paragraph of description. When I was very small I wanted to write and illustrate my own books. I think my next phase was all about basketball–I wanted to play in college and then the WNBA. It makes me smile thinking back on that–the days of being convinced I could play a professional sport someday! The next phase may have been even less grounded in reality, if you can imagine: I wanted to be some kind of “rock star,” which led to me taking guitar lessons in grade 8 and begrudgingly continuing with them throughout high school and junior college. Let’s just say I didn’t exactly take to it. The thought of ever having to play in front of anyone made me want to crawl into a hole and die of embarrassment.

Drawing and painting had been a hobby of mine since I was very young. Unlike other things that caught my interest through the years, art was one that I actually pursued consistently and seemed to improve upon over time. It never felt as forced as some of my other hobbies. I never gave it much of a thought as a career. More on that later.

In high school I learned to enjoy writing. Before, it had only been something that I wished I could do. Then I suddenly had the opportunity to take an elective in Creative Writing, and it terrified me. I was so nervous for that first class–I only signed up because my friend Kelsy did. Between that class and another called Film Appreciation, both taught by the same instructor, I learned that I kind of enjoyed writing analytical essays. Who knew?

I can at least say it made college much easier– having lots of papers to write seemed like no huge task.

When it came time to apply to college, I decided to declare a major in English Literature. I only lasted one semester at that out-of-state university. I moved back home, enrolled in community college, and didn’t really have anything specific in mind for the future. I took classes in American literature, creative writing, film, theater, and painting. Clearly I was in it to make the big bucks…

One of my art instructors there told me that the department had a scholarship to offer me if I decided to declare a major in art. So I did. It paid my full tuition there and gave me a path to follow. The department’s Art Club even organized and raised money for a trip to London. I went. I was sick the entire time, but of course it was still wonderful.

After a year and a half in community college, I transferred to a small-ish school in the nearby city. Now I was in deep in the arts. This was My Thing now. Soon after, I switched my emphasis from Painting to Printmaking. I still took electives in other areas I enjoyed–creative writing, gender studies, poetry translation, basically whatever seemed fun. I took part in a study abroad program, living in Vienna for a couple of months during the spring and summer. The tail end of the trip took us to Venice for a week, where the 53rd Venice Biennale was happening. That was ten years ago. I thought of that summer as the most significant experience of my life for what it did in terms of propelling me forward in my work and my intellectual life. A few months of having so many new and intense experiences gave me the motivation I needed to complete my degree. I feel like it provided me with the solid foundation that I had been in search of. School changed in a drastic way–I became obsessed with my work in a way that I hadn’t been before. I still had two more years left to complete, but the enthusiasm that remained after that trip was not to be stifled.

And here I am, ten years later. Art is not my career. I doubt that it ever will be. The future I envisioned for myself at age 20 is not one that I can really relate to at 30.

For instance, when I was in art school, the idea of exhibiting my work was still a very attractive idea to me. I enjoyed nearly every chance I got to be a part of different shows or exhibitions. Especially toward the end, we were organizing a lot of these things. People would turn up; all my friends would be there (because they were in these shows too). The pressure seemed minimal. I took pleasure in prepping for the exhibitions and getting everything ready. The receptions could also be fun. Eventually the work came down, and we’d do it all over again with another show at another place with new work to display.

Graduating from art school involved writing my thesis and taking part in organizing the final BFA exhibition. I’m still proud of what I did for it, but the actual reception was one of the most unpleasant I can remember. The work I exhibited was made up of 151 ceramic vessels. A few were broken during the course of the night. It was kind of nightmarish for me at the time. Literally, I had nightmares for months afterward about the show because of how stressful it was. I did win an award, and my step-mom cried out of happiness, which made me feel good because I knew she was proud of me. Most of my family was there, and that was the best part. I didn’t produce any more work after that, not for at least a year.

In the last ten years, I’ve gradually lost my enthusiasm for pursuing a career in art. I don’t think I fully grasped what the “business” side of art entailed. The networking, the rigorous self-promotion, the constant filling-out of applications for residencies, shows, and whatnot–none of that ever stops. It’s not like other jobs where you apply once, maybe get an interview and then a job offer, and then you’re finally able to focus on doing your work (with the guarantee that you will be compensated). When that reality settled in, the future I thought I had wanted began to look very bleak.

In school they don’t really tell you that charisma and connections are just as essential to the working artist as the actual art practice itself.

No matter what job it seems that I have, the ability to be totally professional and polished at all times is beyond me. Sometimes I think having a structured workplace is the only thing that keeps me in check. I don’t think I have what it takes to be in the business of “Me.” Over the years I’ve been involved in little side-projects at times to keep myself entertained, but these things tend to wear out their welcome once they become more of an obligation than simply a “fun project”. If I still wanted to pursue a career in art, I would have to be 100% invested in my art practice, in my own self-promotion, in the constant and endless search for opportunities, and somehow I’d still have to find a way to make money because it’s not as if I’d automatically be compensated for these efforts.

Maybe at age 18 or 20 we’re not really in the best position to make decisions regarding who we want to be or what we want to do for the rest of our lives. I wish apprenticeships were more of a popular thing nowadays. Vocational school sort of addresses that need in some ways, but not to the extent I’m imagining. Four-year college is just too expensive to justify enrolling in when you’re still at an age when you’re discovering new things about yourself, your interests, and your abilities on a daily basis.

I wonder how different my life would be today if at age 16 I had begun an apprenticeship with someone who was willing to teach me a specialized skill set of some sort. What it is doesn’t matter–just imagine some skill you wish you had today, and substitute that in this example. Carpentry, cooking, cobbling, computers, cameras, canines (and the training thereof)–I’m trying to be funny and it’s not working. Just imagine anything. Anything you can imagine becoming pretty skilled at doing, and doing it for about ten years, until you’re in your late twenties or thereabouts. And then you enroll in college.

To be continued…in Part 2

About self-improvement

I guess I managed to make it to 30 without starting a personal blog. I’m told no one blogs anymore, so that’s appealing. I don’t necessarily want to foster any kind of community around this. Journaling in secret could help, but screaming into the void could also help. Blogging seemed like a midway point between the two.

I don’t know what I hope to get out of this. Maybe some cathartic sense of release. That desire might align somehow with the need for spiritual cleansing. I often find myself at a loss for how to express what I’m thinking. I have a problem where I equate self-expression with burdening other people. Kind of like, we’ve all got problems, why would anyone care about mine? That sort of thing–nothing you haven’t heard before. But I don’t want to put that on anyone. No one is being forced to read this, so right now I will absolve myself of that guilt.

~absolved~

I also wanted an outlet for my other nonsense. I like to read a lot, and reading is what got me started on this path back to God. So I guess I owe it…my SOUL. If you believe that. It’s fine not to.

Along with reading, I put a great value on the inherent potential in art of all kinds to serve as a portal to that which is intangible. When you read a book and get introduced to a thought for the first time, a thought that is new to you, you’ve been given a gift. This is so cornball, so thank you for staying with me. I want to resist the idea of holding onto all of my old thoughts out of pure stubbornness. I will instead stubbornly pursue new challenges to my old ways of thinking. I have plenty of old thoughts to work through and to reconcile with newer stuff. 

I do wish I’d made this attempt sooner.

This won’t be all doom and gloom, but when it is, I hope to give it 100%.