Health + Family + Relationship + Work.
Essential to a good life, don’t you think? Of course, you may wish to rearrange the sequence to reflect your circumstances or values. Some of you may add in “faith” or spiritual inclination. As for myself, I would include a roof overhead and food on the table, without which it is difficult to survive and aspire to much of anything.
And there you have it. The left side of the equation that many believe should add up to happiness, or at the very least, success. But for some, the weight given to each element is dramatically different than most of us might choose.
Portrait of the artist?
Years ago I met a man in a writing group, an artist and poet. We became friends. He created colorful, surreal imagery, with a touch of the self-taught madness that grew in popularity in the 20th century. And he wrote. All his life he wrote – monologues intended to be performed on stage. Poetry, in scrappy incantations to nature and to lovemaking.
In the name of following his passions wherever they took him, this man worked any job in order to not fall into the trap of the traditional lifestyle, despite a wife, despite a child, and all the standard expectations: an address to call his own, even rented; a reliable car; an “acceptable” job.
He washed dishes in steamy kitchens. He worked as a laborer, harvesting potatoes and hauling sacks of feed. He painted for his supper in the sweltering summers of Central America. And I always respected his convictions, his marriage to creativity above all else. His legal union eventually gave way to divorce, but did so in friendship and mutual esteem, and in shared love for a free-spirited daughter whom he actively raised for portions of her childhood.
He is the man, the teacher, who said to me:
Meet everything head on – the good and the bad – and use it.
Never did he say “seek happiness.” Never did he say “accept compromise.” Never did he attempt to define “success.” Nor did he proclaim that his way was the only way; it was simply his way and he believes, the way of the artist.
I do not believe that a relationship requires a zero-sum game, that giving and taking cannot overlap, that pleasing your partner must inevitably result in a pound of flesh or more likely, the slow seepage of self. Yet this is often the case.
I do not believe that to pursue one’s passions you must extricate yourself from familial responsibilities, that earning a living to put food on the table and clothes on your kids’ backs means you can never be the painter, the musician, the poet. Yet this is often the case.
Still, I wonder if pursuit of the wholehearted self comes with a great price tag, beyond disagreement, beyond butting heads. I think of my friend; I do not consider him a genius, but there are surely flashes of brilliance and extraordinary output. In a way, his entire life has been lived in a sort of ecstatic fullness I can only imagine. That plenitude invites loneliness and sorrows alongside jubilation, and he has painted and written of all of it.
He had choices to make and he made them, including leaving his family for long stretches to craft images and arrange words. He did what he felt he had to do, or he couldn’t survive. Is that selfish? Self-interested? Narcissistic? Do these words even apply, or do we dislike considering them when we describe the artistic spirit?
I am in no position to judge and yet I may do so unintentionally – when I reflect on his choices in light of my own, and perhaps with an element of envy. My primary task of 20 years has been parenting, accompanied by a corporate career, my deepest need for writing, and both, in retrospect, pale next to the time, care, and commitment to raising children well. My own dreams were long ago set aside to live in the “real world” – to pay for my education, to pay my bills, to provide for my family.
Or perhaps I was simply afraid. Or not good enough. Or both.
Health. Family. Relationship. Work.
To this friend, I suspect the equation would read Work + Family + Relationship + Health. Creative output before all else. And it all adds up to a sum of moments lived fully, some wrenching, some exultant, and most – somewhere in between.
I know abandonment. I know isolation. I know both in pieces and puzzles. I know what it is to long for the “good” parent to be more present, and he is not. To yearn for a partner in life, and go without. But I also recognize the integrity in this man’s choices, that his child was always surrounded by love, and that he executed his departures in a sort of raw integrity that was never about ambition or money, and while not devoid of ego, his journeys glorified work and its process.
Abandonment vs. Leaving
Some abandon their loved ones on a perpetual search – for something more, for something better, for something easier. Some leave – as an act of survival.
There are those who might say this man abandoned his ties and his responsibilities, that he deprived his family of his presence, requiring them to sacrifice so he could pursue his art.
And yet, he always returned, he always loved, and did so granting them his fullest self on those occasions. He never pretended to be someone he is not.
- We often say all’s fair in love and war. What about art?
- Can you embrace your joys head-on, leaving others to the consequences of your absence?
- Is it inevitable to set aside dreams once you are the caretaker of a family?