Zen for Head

Years ago, a person I knew told me that his goal was to be interesting. To him, where he lived was inextricably linked to that idea. He told me that where I was living at the time, Montana, was interesting. I suspect, because this was the way in which he used it, that interesting was a stand-in for other things, like valuable or worthwhile or important.

Having grown up in Missouri and attended college in Minnesota, I’ve heard my share of jokes about Midwestern fly-over country. But this person diminished the value of people who live in these places more plainly than anyone I’ve encountered before or since. It was a disturbing conversation, made more so because at the time I was working at a job that I absolutely hated. I remember weighing his words when I was ultimately deciding to leave that job and Montana. The job didn’t use my skills, made me feel stupid, and utterly and completely depressed me. But living in Montana did make me interesting, so…

Fortunately, I did leave the job, which led my then-boyfriend and I back to our hometown of Springfield, Missouri. It was the right decision. In the three years we lived together in Springfield, we got married, bought and renovated a house, and had a baby. Yet there were still more times than I’d like to admit when I worried that my life wasn’t interesting.

We left Springfield, briefly, but came but came back again earlier this year. And still sometimes I find myself wondering, “Am I interesting?”

I’m not only thinking about that one conversation with that man, of course. I’m also drawing my own comparisons to people I know who are making their livings as artists, or writers, or— surely no one is actually making a living at this but I swear I cannot figure out what else this person is doing—traveling the world while posting photos of baby elephants and rainforests and crowded street markets on social media.

Comparison is the thief of joy, I know, but if you tell me that then I will compare my own inability to stop comparing my life to your ability to rise above it, and I will find myself wanting. In addition to being a thief of joy, comparison is a human condition. That doesn’t sound as good on a motivational poster.

When I’m down in the trenches of comparison, I think a lot about happiness. Our culture tells us over and over that happiness is both the goal and something that can be permanently achieved. I know on a rational level that happily ever after isn’t real, but the whole system is designed to make this kind of rational thought all but impossible. We’re told that this product, or place, or person, or state of being will make us happy forever. That’s a powerful message that makes us buy a whole lot of things we don’t need and do things we don’t want to do. Or maybe I shouldn’t say “we,” because this is personal. I buy things I don’t need and do things I don’t want to do, because I believe on some subconscious level that they’re the secret to everlasting happiness.

The real secret, of course, is that happiness is always fleeting. There is no perma-happiness. The game is to notice happiness when it happens and remember it when it’s gone. The game is to understand that, although happiness is wonderful, there are many states of being that are equally or more important. The game is to let the noise about happiness wash over you and ask yourself what the noise is trying to sell you. The game is to let happiness catch you when you least expect it, not to seek it out because it will not be there.

I was an art major in college, which is something I rarely talk about in polite society. When it does come up, the first thing people ask is, “Do you still make art?” and what I always say is no. What I wish I said was yes, not because I still paint or draw (though I do, sometimes) but because of course art is a lot bigger than that.

My favorite piece of art is Zen for Head by Nam June Paik. Zen for Head interprets a work by LaMonte Young, whose Composition 1960 No. 10 consists entirely of the instruction: “draw a straight line and follow it.” In Zen for Head, Paik dips his head in paint and drags it across a long sheet of paper, effectively drawing a line and following it.

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In light of Zen for Head, my honest answer to the perennial question—do you still make art?—is of course yes. Of course I make art. We all do, if we tell ourselves we do.

My art is doodling in the margins of the agendas of every meeting I’ve attended over the last decade. My art is putting lotion on my freshly bathed daughter. My art is never giving up on the value of creative pursuits. My art is finally learning to take two ibuprofen before the migraine gets bad. My art is eating popcorn with my husband in bed. It’s all art. It’s all my head, the bucket of paint, and how I choose to follow the instructions to draw a line.

Probably happiness is the same thing. The happiness isn’t the problem, it’s how we define it that gets us into trouble. If happiness can be as broadly defined as art, then I am happy almost all the time. I wish I could grasp this concept.

Instead, at least, I am trying to embrace happiness when it comes. My two-year-old is teaching me how. Are we having a “cracking up in the bath until we’re both crying-laughing” moment? Or are we having a “throwing dinner on the ground and wailing to get out of our highchair moment”? You’d be crazy to let the highchair moment ruin the bath moment, even though they only happen five minutes apart. Toddlers are excellent and persuasive teachers. I am learning.

Perhaps this is also the case with being interesting: it comes in fits and starts and you cannot force it. Or maybe it’s also an issue of defining, of considering interesting in the broadest possible terms. I don’t know. The only thing I can say for sure is that the man whose goal was to be interesting was one of those truly awful people who I should just avoid anyway.

All of that to say: welcome to my new blog. I want to make my own art in whatever ways I want to. Kid Springfield is one place where I’m going to do it.

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