The poet Ann Lauterbach has a phrase that goes something like, “All artworks are a product of choices: this, not that.” I have liked this quote since it was given to me a couple of years ago and find myself thinking about it a lot. I certainly see the truth in it when I am making my own work or writing. In creating things, my head swims with “and…and…and” but when I bring something into full realization in print or in an artwork, decisions have been made to leave things as they are. The form of the work becomes locked down. Over time though, the “and” of the piece comes back into it. For instance when I talk about something I have made or written I often find myself picking one of the narratives in my head about that work and speaking about it. As I am speaking, I try to use words that let the listener know there is more there. If I talk about the artwork again in a month or two I might pick a totally different narrative to share. All of it leads back to the same product, which is one of the things I like about making things. This dualistic type of thinking ‘this, not that’ has allowed a space for something to come into existence but hasn’t necessarily choked off all the meaning considered when the piece was brought into the world.
However, another quirk that happens is sometimes I begin to understand whatever it is I am working on in a different way. An example of this would be my post yesterday where as I was writing about Joan Didion and the Walkmen and trying to understand why these things stimulated feelings of fullness. As I was writing I realized that this stuff roots me very much in the moment. It is almost as if my experiences of the past and my fears of possible futures collide in an instant. In all that emotion I am forced to my current, specific moment. When I have this feeling and really hold it for a moment I want to run around and grab people and marvel at the moment, “Look at this day! Could you even fathom the complexity that brought us to this moment?! This is amazing!” I feel a weakened version of this quite often when I teach, which makes my students think they are having a transcendent experience in the classroom or their professor is on drugs. Anyway, my understanding of the Walkmen only began to gel as I was writing. In fact I am not sure I would have understood it fully without trying to bring this emotion into some sort of physical form. The world was right for a moment…and then it faded.
So now I have a record of my experience of the Walkmen at this point in my life, which is to say I know that being somewhere in the spectrum of married, with a son and another child on the way, in grad school, writing and trying to maintain an art practice, teaching, anxious, lonely/together, etc., etc., sounds like the fullness of something like “We Can’t Be Beat.” This will always be.
But not exactly…
Because, if in something like another 30 years, a mid-thirties Miles puts on that song and I am fortunate enough to listen to it with Shannon and him and our player(s)-to-be-named-later, I am sure I will have a shiver of recognition of these past couple of years. But now, the song might function as the permeable bookend for things to come. If some amount of tragedy were to befall our family–and it will–I imagine the song will carry with it the promise of the times before those tragedies. And if some amount of joy were to befall our family–and I am going to go ahead and allow myself to be optimistic here and say it will–I imagine that song holds the seeds of the beginning of that joy. Now, please keep in mind, its not just that specific song; really, anything has that potential. Chances are I am not even sure what it is yet, but I hope it is there. Unless I change drastically, I am sure I will tear up when this happens. Part of “this, not that” is seeing that fullness dominated by joy rather than sorrow. Of course they are both there, its just that the one helps make the other visible.
I had no idea this was going to end here.
Gratuitous picture of the day (terrible attempt and a family portrait edition):