Changing Directions

Digital illustration: Changing Directions

Do I move at the whim of the slightest breeze? Often enough, I suppose. But what really changes my direction in life? Chance? Passion? Accident? Will?

I’d say it’s been one or another of all of those at various times, and perhaps occasionally a combination of elements. What I would say most definitely and commonly is that I have rarely known very far in advance what direction my life would be taking, let alone exactly when. Living with uncertainty is at the heart of the human condition. We can’t know (nor would I wish to know) much of what lies ahead for us. Being an artist, and married to an artist, I have made some choices that guaranteed perhaps an even deeper and more frequent susceptibility to wondering what comes next. While both of us have taught at times, an occupation that has a degree of predictability and dependability absent in most other employment that involves our artistic skills and training, it never prevented the question from arising in other ways.

For me, as a longtime adjunct at the university, it meant that though I’d been there for nearly seventeen years (most of those, full-time) before I stopped teaching, I never had a contract in hand for more than a year at a time, nor was my class load or schedule in any way predestined; I taught what I was asked to teach, when I was asked to teach it. For my spouse, a tenured full professor and director of his division, he still had questions about how he might change and grow as a teacher, never mind whether to apply for or take any of the other positions on offer at other places from time to time.

We are, I think, pretty much the ordinary pair when it comes to that sort of thing. Even now, after many years of doing particular kinds of work at specific places and getting plenty of satisfaction from those various tasks, it doesn’t in any way stop us from asking, What next? Will we continue on the present path exactly as we are just now? Do we opt to  make any kinds of transitions, either changing the way we do what we do or the venue for doing it, or does something entirely new entice and draw our interest? If it does, is it attainable? Is there some utterly unimagined thing lurking just around an unsuspected corner, waiting to draw us in?

At times, it can make me feel as though I can never quite catch my breath or my balance. I tire of asking myself all of these whys, hows and what-ifs, yet I can’t resist scratching at the questions the minute I thought I’d put them to rest for a while. Even when I’m most happy and fulfilled and contented, I always wonder what lies ahead.

And that, of course, is the very heart of that human condition. We know that change is inevitable. We know that some of it will be by our choice, and much of it will be thrust upon us or sneak up subtly and surprise us all the same. And we know that, in some ways, the only guarantee we have is that we will all die wondering. It’s what we do, and it’s who we are.

Depends on Whom You Ask

What’s happening in any given scene? Everyone who answers the question is sure to have his own answer. Point of view is colored and skewed every which way by one’s position at the moment, by the context of experience, by taste and beliefs. Is this a drama? A comedy? Every actor in the event might well give you a different answer.

The other day when I was hearing a delightfully humorous arrangement of the old western song ‘Blood on the Saddle’ (arranged by Trent Worthington) I couldn’t resist adding a silly illustration of my own to the music. In my sketch, the horse whose saddle has presumably been bloodied stands still enough now to act as a comfortable perch for a vulture that stopped by to survey the fallen cowboy as a potential buffet–though as the vulture has just landed he’s more interested in a short rest first. The horse, now riderless and not forced to buck, has no particular remaining interest in the fellow who until recently expected him to lug around the cowpoke‘s weight and kick his heels in the rodeo arena for a living. The cowboy, now just a flat stain in the dust of the ring, is of no more interest to the horse and little yet to the buzzard (not ripe enough yet, presumably). In fact, when I cropped the cowboy out of the picture altogether, it struck me that the horse and bird looked pretty peacefully contented just lounging around together.graphite drawingSo, whose point of view matters here? The cowboy’s, not so much. Having croaked, he’s now short on both opinions and feelings, so we’ll leave him out of the equation. The bronc, of course, has got to be somewhat relieved at the current situation; while he did participate in the squashing of the aforementioned rider, it’s a pretty safe bet that having the guy pile on his back and goad him to buck was hardly the horse’s idea in the first place, so he can hardly be blamed for, well, bucking the buckaroo off into the dirt. Falling over the fallen fellow, I feel it’s safe to say, wasn’t the horse’s idea either, but just a natural consequence of being thrashed around unwillingly in a dirt arena for someone else’s amusement. Fictional or not, this poor horse deserves a break after all he’s been through.

The buzzard, on the other hand, is just a passing freeloader. Of course, that’s what vultures are designed by nature to be and do: the cleanup crew following food-related disasters. Some days, the sacrificial mammals are less human than in this instance, but regardless of the source, nice dead things are made to be Vulture Chow. And the upshot of the dining experience is that the buzzards will leave the scene a much spiffier one than when they arrived on it. Seems to me that this vulture, too, deserves his moment of happy contemplation and repose before hopping down to dine. I’m guessing, then, that his view of the whole scene is rather–if you’ll pardon the expression–sanguine. Unlikely he’d care how the meal arrived at his ‘table’ so long as it arrived. He sits on his equine throne and surveys what, to a carnivorous bird, is a royal feast indeed.

And what of me, the observer and, partly, inventor of this scenario? How am I to respond to it? I bring my own baggage to the occasion. I’m not a lifelong fan of vintage Western songs, having come to appreciate them as a piece of Americana and folk music culture later in life but still from the remove of something like an anthropological observer. This song itself has had a number of covers from the period-traditional to playful takes like Mr. Worthington’s above-mentioned arrangement, and each iteration adds new aspects to the folklore of the story, tingeing it further with tragedy or humor, history or fiction. The story of a cowboy riding a bucking bronco until thrown and crushed by the horse is swiftly told but can grow and change with each retelling. Do I feel sorry for the cowboy? Insofar as I get involved in the lives, loves and losses of fictional characters (and I do), I will admit his story has its sorrows. It’s arguably a tragedy in the classical sense, since it was through his own choices and actions and the consequences thereof–one could even conceivably see his fall as a direct result of hubris–but death of anything other than comfortable old age still strikes most of us humanoids as just plain sad.

I guess you can tell from my earlier remarks that my sympathies lie more with the horse in this equation. He was put into an untenable situation and responded in true horse fashion to the best of his ability. Too bad for the cowboy that horse logic says the correct response to being strapped into bucking gear is to buck, and that, as hard as you possibly can. The horse in this tale got lucky and knocked that unwelcome irritant off his back. Tough luck for the irritant. It really is all about perspective when it comes to assessing the situation. What it boils down to for me is a recognition that being the cowboy may appear more exciting and impressive, but sometimes it’s better to be the image from a graphite drawingWho knows? I might even root for being the buzzard: none of the hassle, all of the free booty. Say, I might be a vulture already! And I’m okay with that. Stop by and find an already made idea for a drawing? Why, sure. I am a shameless scavenger. But I prefer the term ‘artist’, if you please. And all you others are free to agree or disagree, just as you wish.

Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . *


. . . Think I’m Gonna Go Eat Worms! [Note: no actual worms were harmed in the making of this photograph.]

Yes, it may be true that no man is an island–we all depend on others far more than we even recognize or comprehend–but conversely, every one of us is his or her own unique and seemingly isolated version of Three Mile Island at times when it comes to having personal meltdowns. It starts right at birth, when most of us scream and complain at having been removed from that ever-so-pleasant resort and spa, Mom’s innards, and ejected unwittingly and unwillingly into the cold, cruel world, and it continues, however sporadically, throughout our lives. We are such fragile creatures.

The majority of humans, happily, are not subject to this dark reality for too large a percentage of our lives, but it’s more common than is commonly discussed that we have trials, tribulations and the varying degrees of inability to cope with them that make us question, if not our sanity, then certainly our ability to rise above what’s bad, get a grasp on the good, and move forward regardless of feeling worthy or curable. Depression truly sucks–not just in the vernacular, but in the sense of pulling one down into a bottomless abyss like an evil and irresistible vortex.

I’m not referring, of course, to ordinary grief or sadness. We all get hit by those monsters at times. We flounder, we suffer, we recover. It may be deep and painful and take a long time to rebound from sorrows of even the most normal sort, but we do, eventually, learn how to go on living and being and take part in the doings of the world. Generally, that sort of difficulty or tragedy even tends to gradually heighten the sense and appreciation of what is good and joyful once we’ve experienced and survived the dark and can see the shining contrast of even a modest pleasure with what appeared insurmountably grim from its midst. True clinical, chemical, physiological depression, well, that’s a different thing.

It resists the most persuasive and intelligent logic. It batters self-worth and love in the most brilliant, gifted and accomplished sufferers. It tears at relationships of any sort with other people or with action, with one’s wit and will to survive. If it doesn’t make one outright, actively suicidal, it can simply kill through atrophy and attrition: sufferers have described the state of longing intensely to kill themselves but having no strength or energy to do so.

Why would I talk of such dire and dreary and horrid stuff, even think of it at all? Because I am reminded sometimes of when I used to be there. My worst bout of depression was perhaps aided and abetted by various situational and temporal aggravations, including the typical catalysts and intensifiers of real-world health and happiness threats: the onset of my spasmodic dysphonia, job problems, the murder of our good friend. These were of course widely different in intensity and timing, but to someone like me, their interaction with my evidently wonky endocrine system or whatever combined forces of chemical and biological imbalance were building in me meant that when I hit bottom, no amount of thoughtful and heartfelt reasoning with myself could ‘fix’ me or my situation.

I am one of the true Lucky Ones. I finally felt so brain-fogged, so unable to resist the pull of that deadly sucking, enervating, soul-destroying feeling of pointlessness and ugliness and being unlovable and incapable of doing anything meaningful or good–well, I got so needy that I actually let others help me. That was it. The only way out of the hole was to grip the hands reaching in toward me and let them do all of the work of pulling me out. Part of it was accepting these helpers’ assurances that they did indeed believe in me and in how I felt, that they loved me and knew that I had worth and potential. Part was letting others lead me around and taking their advice and simply letting go of what little shreds of ego I had left enough to say that I would do better in following an educated and experienced prescription for improvement than I’d been doing on my ever-weakening own two feet. And a part that was essential for me was loosening my grip on my insistence that taking prescribed treatment–both psychological and chemical–without trying to create or control it myself was a sign of weakness or failure. It took, in fact, all of my strength and intelligence to recognize that any strength and intelligence I had couldn’t save me.

The luck involved is clearly that together we (my caregivers–medical and personal–and I) did find the combination of therapeutic treatments, behavioral changes and chemical re-balancing medication that not only unlocked my present emergency state of depressive existence but ultimately proved to let me feel fully, wholly myself for the first time in my life. I know that this is not a cure but an ongoing process for as long as I live. And, having lived both ways, I am more than happy to take on that responsibility. It’s a privilege.

What’s most beautiful of all, for me, is that when it happens (as it has in this last couple of weeks) that several occurrences and situations conspire to remind me of this my past and how it shaped my present life and self, it also reawakens in me the profound gratitude for all of those complex minutiae that converged so miraculously well as to make this life possible. To make my continued existence at all possible, perhaps, but particularly such a happy me. What seemed like the most disastrous and irreparable of confluences instead conspired to make just the right blend at the right moment that finally offered me a rescue.

Turns out that eating worms is the very nourishment that makes some birds healthy enough to sing their hearts out with the pure delight of existing. Last week I was out walking and saw a ditch full of drowned worms, lured into and killed by stormy waters. This week I was walking the same route and the sky was filled with the most spectacular warbling, chirruping, musical bird songs I could hope to hear. Coincidence? Very possibly illustration from a photo

(* from the old campfire song Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . )