Recently I felt ashamed to call myself an artist… It’s been weeks since I’ve felt that spark, that desire to create, to share, the way I imagine artists are supposed to feel all the time. I feel silly to myself sometimes, trying to put a name to it… to say, “I’m a dancer”… when it feels like an impermanent state. I could just as easily say, “I’m hungry” and in an hour or so it might not be true anymore. Does the label depend simply on a practiced pattern of behavior? …I’ve danced a lot in the past, so therefore I’m a dancer? And how long does it take for that label to fall away? How much time in stillness, without moving, without dancing, does it take for that statement to be false?
I’ve been paying attention to my own inner dialogue lately around the concepts of productivity and success— what they have come to mean to me— how they take up space and energy in my life. I notice the shame-saturated moments when my body is at rest, when I’m not doing, when I have nothing to show for my time. It’s a funny realization, coming to terms with the way you box up your own life; the way you ration your moments, scale and compare them, value or otherwise devalue them.
What has my idea of success been? What form has it taken in my mind? Is it sharp? A fixed point defined on the horizon? No, not really; it is a vague amalgamation—a muddy soup— with swirls of promise, fulfillment and recognition floating atop thick layers of drudgery.
Success used to be my mother’s cold hands in the early hours of the morning, caressing my face to bid me a good day before being pulled toward the clickety-clack of her cubicle keyboard. They were good, back-tickling, bread-winning, bring-home-the-bacon hands: both hardworking and delicate with long, slender fingers, which we always said would’ve been great for piano-playing, had she ever had the time to learn. Their soft touch was a daily, bittersweet reminder of a monotony my half-asleep, 5-year-old self could not yet grasp or appreciate; a bittersweetness like the taste of coffee with its addictive pull, which I also couldn’t yet conceive of, or the jittery numbness it would awaken in a quotidian battle against sleep and mundanity.
...And yet, success didn’t seem to be all bad; it wasn’t just the thing pulling my mother away each morning. It was also the extravagant scent of Chanel perfume, or the small silk scarves she wore in a knot around her neck—something dignified, illusive, adult and foreign to me like business trips or taxes— something which I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to wear with confidence, but which intrigued me nevertheless.
Even now, that corporate figure, that pragmatic model of normalcy, duty, and stability, still remains lurking somewhere in my head— a subconscious totem of success— like a floating after-image of light behind shut eyelids. That image is permanently imprinted and somehow sought after, though the shape of success as it pertains to my life, now seems something altogether different…
Success, the story of it anyway, has now become something grandiose and beautiful in my mind’s eye, steeped in a sad idolatry of artistic recognition and a naive glorification of unfortunate life circumstance. Like a Frida Kahlo painting—painfully pretty, raw, flowery and unapologetically unibrowed—that’s been reduced to a gift-shop trinket, my idea of success has become some appropriated story of struggle and achievement, deemed somehow necessary and deceptively alluring in the most artsier-than-thou way.
But success has never fit me quite right. The size of it has always been too tight in some places and sagging in others; its fabric never quite as soft and luxurious as advertised. The more I exist in this world, the more I’m coming to believe that this is exactly the way success was constructed to be— an unsuitable garment for just about everyone. This kind of exclusivity is what gives success its draw, its velveteen allure. If everyone could wear it, it would no longer be so valuable, so sought after.
Well that’s all very nice and poetic, success as a metaphorical, ill-fitting gown… but it’s also kind of bullshit…
I’m sick of viewing myself and the world through that lens; through a sense of lack, of never enough, of not quite there yet/never going to be. Instead, I think it’s an apt question to ask what an individual’s responsibility is to their work. Or, better yet, to ask: why work at all? Where do we each belong in the this big life machine? Where is the red pill that takes us out of this Matrix?
I drank a cola with a special label. As the sugar rotted my teeth, the words inscribed on the bottle posed this question to me: was würdest du arbeiten, wenn für dein einkommen gesorgt wäre? It translates to: what would you do for work if your income were taken care of? I keep the empty bottle perched on my shelf, asking me this question eternally.
I’m not really sure what my role is in all of this, or whether it’s even important to have a role… I guess I am the one who has to decide for myself what’s important; and I suppose what I really want is to contribute in some way to cultivating connectivity in the world— to push back against indifference, against the tired, passionless monotony taking hold, against the devastation of many lives being lived mechanically and in isolation— separate from the life source, which sustains and connects us all.
I’m not always able to lift that veil for myself— the one that seemingly separates me from everything else— but I wonder if it’s possible to pull myself out of that false trap as often as I can, and by so doing, hold the veil up or otherwise tear a small hole in it that others may also traverse from time to time. That is the hope anyway, my true work, the task I give myself and make vital in each moment; and as for success, I guess I’m not convinced yet that it’s even real, nor that it should be.