After years of thinking about it, I finally had the wherewithal to start a vegetable garden this Spring. It has been incredibly gratifying and I am learning quite a lot, not just about vegetables, but about my commitment to keeping this endeavor alive. I am also reminded of the extent to which the plant world nourishes: literally/physically, spiritually/emotionally, mentally, and creatively. I bring all of this up because the garden is always such a fitting metaphor for all aspects of life and work. When one nourishes the garden, waters and feeds the soil, attends to individual plants’ needs, the garden flourishes. And so with creative work, which thrives on the regular infusion of love, imagination, effort (and surrender). Inattention to the garden manifests in ways not unlike inattention to one’s creative work – it withers and retreats into dormancy and, if allowed to languish, finally enters a phase of decline.
Like the Fool on the edge of the abyss, we are challenged to keep our creative acts and aspirations alive and nourished in the face of post-modern life’s demands, but we so would like to surrender to the pull of the abyss. Such is often the case with artists and dreamers at one time or another (and maybe every day) – dancing along the edge of that cliff between one necessity and the other.
In recent months, for the sake of my physical being (food, roof over one’s head, other related commitments and obligations), I have been through a readjustment in my life situation that resulted in a certain degree of neglect (I won’t say abandonment) of my Work (I use the initial cap intentionally). Now that I have been able, gratefully, to re-immerse myself in those labors (albeit with less time but with no less intensity), I reflect that I came dangerously close to completely losing this precious gift (the gift of the work itself and the gift of being able to actually do it). Although it was painful to endure what turned out to be a temporary hiatus from the Studio, the experience definitely clarified what is important in all of this, and what is less so. It was also a direct realization of the vulnerable nature of a creative life.
If one is determined to keep the Work from withering and retreating, the Work (and the maker) must be nourished on a regular, arguably daily, basis. This sustained attention, devotion and sacrifice to the work is the “gratitude” Lewis Hyde speaks about in The Gift. This is a dense but fluid book and one I would suggest no artist be without. The following series of passages are relevant to recent experience:
Once a gift has stirred within us, it is up to us to develop it. There is a reciprocal labor in the maturation of a talent. The gift will continue to discharge its energy so long as we attend to it in return. . . . .A gift isn’t fully realized until it is given away. . . .Those who will not acknowledge gratitude or who refuse to labor in its service neither free their gifts
nor really come to possess them. . . .
The labor of gratitude is the middle term in the passage of a gift. It is wholly different from the ‘obligation’ we feel when we accept something we don’t really want. . . .A gift that has the power to change us awakens a part of the soul. But we cannot accept the gift until we can meet it as an equal. We therefore submit ourselves to the labor of becoming like the gift. Giving a return gift is the final act in the labor of gratitude, and it is also, therefore, the true acceptance of the original gift. . . . (pp. 62-65)
I often turn to Lewis Hyde when I am trying to make sense of the conflicts that arise between the timelessness of creative labors and the necessities of life in the early 21st century….the need to nourish our creative spirit and the need to nourish our physical bodies; the desire to do the work without charging a fee for it and the need to “make a living;” and the philosophical tangle embedded in the desire to earn a livelihood from the Work itself versus doing the Work for its own sake and making a living in some other way. We have all felt the desire to just not have to worry about the money and do the Work but also knowing that if we had a choice between one form of work over an art- or design-based livelihood, we would probably choose the latter. Then, when the choice is made, it is sometimes hard to grapple with the demands (and the heartbreaks) of an art-based livelihood.
This is all material for the mind to chew on while the Labor continues. No resolution here but to keep on going. It certainly isn’t the first and won’t be the last time I encounter and do the dance with these issues and questions. Meanwhile….back to nourishing the seed I planted and raised to its present form 5 years ago(!) There is no question but that the Labor will and must continue.