Footprints are not the point.

Think of footprints in sand.

You might picture a lone set of evenly-spaced footprints, marking out a clear trail into the distance. If you’ve got a vivid imagination (or a fondness for landscape photography), your mental image might include a fiery sunset or moody grey clouds. The types of weather and color and plant life might reflect your temperament, tastes, and personality.

What that mental image probably doesn’t reflect is reality.

How many times have you been to the beach and created the only set of human footprints? Unless you are a very early riser, or have access to some private beachfront property, probably not as often as you might have liked.

Even if you are alone, and only notice your own footprints, they are almost certainly not the only ones there.

In reality, that wave-smoothed sand is marred. The tracks of many, many other creatures — barefoot, clawed, pawed, and shod — crisscross the beach in a heedless chaotic jumble. Sometimes the prints are tiny and you really have to stoop and squint to see them: songbirds, rodents, crabs, beetles. Others are hard to miss: the sand is pitted and churned up by dogs and other heavier creatures like you and me.

There are also some spots with so many tracks that none are individually distinguishable. The tangle around the drinking fountains, the public restrooms, and along the thresholds between concrete and sand show us the waypoints where nearly everyone, regardless of species or footwear or destination, has passed or will pass.

Yeah, okay, great. So what does all this have to do with art? Sure, beaches are a pretty typical place for people to want to hang out, lots of animals there too, blah blah blah. But I’m talking about footprints — the tracks we leave behind.

Every creator faces a blank page, and in our mind, it can become that imaginary expanse of untrodden sand. In the name of self-expression, we might take a stick and boldly scrawl our name or sentiments in large letters: “I WAS HERE”, “JOHN ❤ ALICE”, a snatch of lyric, a bawdy joke. Others might create elaborate designs: fantastical mazes or sandcastles or rocketships. Some of us might prefer to leave only a humble trail of footprints, for others to see and know that this way has been traveled before. Autobiography, biography, fiction, non-fiction, diaries, visual arts; we leave our marks in different ways.

But, for many of us, that expanse of imaginary sand can feel forbidding.

Sometimes our perfectionism keeps us from taking a single step. Better to enjoy that lovely sunset from the margins than risk marring the landscape with my mess. People will see and know. People might be upset. I will ruin this. I’m not good enough.

But, like our mental image of that empty beach with one lonely set of footprints, the solitude is imaginary. Abstaining from our own brisk walk along that shore will not prevent the sand from getting churned up. Staying on the sidelines will not somehow preserve the way for other, more worthy walkers. That blank page in front of us has been visited many times, by many people. Anything that you can say will be understood by someone; there is no place to which you can journey where no one can follow you. There are places, fulcrums, in human experience where everyone’s paths intersect, needs we all share — you are not alone.

This leads me to a second fear: insignificance. The cacophony of other footprints (voices and blogs and opinions and critics) can be overwhelming.My contribution will only get lost in the muddle. Be original or shut up. No one can hear me; no one is listening; no one cares; this has all been said before, done before, made before.

To that fear, all I can say is this:

The footprints we leave are not the point of walking.

What brought you to this beach in the first place? Is that ocean less beautiful because other eyes have beheld it? Is this fresh air less vivifying because other lungs have drawn from it? Is that threshold less significant because others have had to cross it?

It’s so easy to get sidelined by the footprints.

Did you only come here to leave your mark?

But you are a writer, an artist, a creator. So footprints are, of course, a large part of the walk for you. You can’t see a sunset without wanting to pay homage in adjectives, or photographs, or shades of carmine and vermilion pigment. Because you are an artist, art is the side effect of your experiences, the natural result, the footprints you leave in the sand. But you didn’t come here to create footprints. You came here to walk, to run, to dance, to explore.

There is nothing wrong with leaving footprints. But they should be the result — and not the focus — of our journey.

We get so focused on the end goal — making sure each footstep is perfectly aligned with the last, cutting through some “original” unmarred bit of shoreline. But people don’t come to this beach to see your footprints in the sand, anymore than you came here to make them. Just like you, they come to see the sky, the sea, the waves — that fraction of a heartbeat where the slanting sunlight turns a cresting wave into stained glass.

Every moment is significant if you are looking for a sign. The very fact that so many paths cross at any certain point is what makes that point worth our attention. First loves. Heartbreak. Fear of the unknown. The pain of loss. The fears of parenthood. The struggle to survive. The need to know and to be known.

In 1911, writer O. Henry penned a short story called “Makes the Whole World Kin,” about a burglar who ends up having a friendly chat with his intended victim about the rheumatism from which they both suffer. Instead of carrying out the burglary, the young thief ends up inviting the older man out for drinks, to which he agrees — and the thief picks up the tab. Our shared experience, in this case pain, links us at a deeper level than anything else can.

This is why art, born of the need to communicate our deepest experiences with each other, knits the whole world into a family. More than the excellence of our brushstroke or our skill with a turn of phrase, our experiences are what draw us together.

Years ago, I read an excellent novel: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. Something is “remarkable” simply because people remark about it. Things don’t go unnoticed because they are commonplace — rather they become commonplace because they go unnoticed. The best art happens when artists notice, and share with us what they notice, and in so doing, teach us to notice on our own. The commonplace becomes remarkable when we remark on it. This “knack” of noticing comes easily to some; we might call those people artists. The truth is, every one of us is capable of learning this knack.

By reaffirming the significance, the remarkability, of our common experiences, we help to ennoble ourselves and others. By recognizing our similarities, we reinforce our humanity. It’s hard to burgle someone who knows exactly how much this blasted thunderstorm is making your arthritic shoulder ache — whose shoulder is really aching too — who offers you some tips on how to ease the pain.

You’re an artist, a writer, a poet, a creator, an engineer, a maker: a human being. It is your job to see things, go places, create, explore, notice — and if you are doing your job, you will leave footprints behind as you go. Make life remarkable by taking the time to ponder and remark about life. Make the world kin, by being kindred to it. Art will follow naturally. Your heart and soul will be changed by your journey, even if there is no one else on that beach to see your footprints. The art is in the doing. The footprints are not the point.

(Originally published on medium.com)

Death and taxes.

It was a vogue idea in the early 1700s, it seems: “Nothing is certain except for death and taxes.” It’s still quoted today, frequently.

So, in essence: “Once upon a time, TAXES. The End.”?

I disagree.

Sometimes… well, sometimes the end comes well before any taxes are due–a miracle, in shorthand, cut short. Tiny hands that will never hold a dollar, let alone hand it over to the powers-that-be.

But when life lasts just a bit longer, there are a few other sureties. Things guaranteed, at least once in every life, no matter how small and unremarkable they may seem. Their descriptions don’t fit in a truism, so they are disregarded.

A moment that makes you catch your breath and marvel. A smile, a look, a touch, that warms your heart, even if only for a second. Even the most disadvantaged of us experience a few of these moments between our grand entry, those pernicious taxes, and our exit point. Whether or not you have all your five senses, your freedom, your health, a family, a home–you will have these moments. They are just as certain as taxes, just as certain as death, and much more worthy of recognition, ponderance, and remark.

Think of some experience you’ve had–one which you were amazed to discover that someone else shared. Isn’t that one of the biggest secret (or not-so-secret) reasons that we read, that we write? To find those experiences, or to shout about them into the darkness, in an effort to pile up the evidences that we are not, after all, alone?

The only thing that is sure in life is that we are not alone. Death and taxes are just two more things which we all have in common.

Let’s look for those commonalities, these moments worth remembering, every day; and then, let’s help someone else learn to catch their own moments, when they come. If we learn to recognize them, and pile them high together, maybe our bonfire can light up this night we’re all stumbling through. (It sure beats whining about taxes.)

Blather, anywhere.

Friendship-poem

Hey, whaddya know? I can post from my phone.

This poem is from an old book found lying in a dusty waiting room. Somehow I can’t help but picture two chagrined Roosevelt elk locked apart by their spreading antlers, awkwardly trying to reach each other’s lips for a smooch. (Which is so absurd that it’s wonderful.)

Obscurism

Obscurism: The practice of peppering daily life with obscure references (forgotten films, dead TV stars, unpopular books, defunct countries, etc.) as a subliminal means of showcasing both one’s education and one’s wish to disassociate from the world of mass culture.

–as defined in Douglas Coupland‘s ponderific novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture )

Something about setting up a new site saps the creativity out of me. Too much process and not enough presence. So, for my flagship post, I’ll just quote something obscure and self-referencing, because meta.

One of the things I love to romanticize (and there’s a long list) is obscurity. But of course, by drawing attention to it, trying to define it, we undo it. That quality, that ephemeral can’t-quite-catch-it-or-pin-it-down-will-‘o-the-wisp-ishness, is what enchants me. I read a book a few years ago called If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, and the entire book was basically a fly on the wall of the everyday lives of a handful of unremarkable people in an apartment building. But the act of novelizing their experiences, remarking upon them, made those experiences by definition remarkable.

Things are only unremarkable when we fail to recognize them. The most remarkable events in our lives are the obscurities that we bother to remark upon.

And so, a blog. About obscurities, self-awareness, and reflection–as well as about all the other unremarkable things in my life about which I wish to remark.

ob·scure
adj. ob·scur·er, ob·scur·est

  1. Deficient in light; dark.
  2. So faintly perceptible as to lack clear delineation; indistinct.
  3. Indistinctly heard; faint.
  4. Linguistics. Having the reduced, neutral sound represented by schwa.
  5. Far from centers of human population: an obscure village.
  6. Out of sight; hidden: an obscure retreat.
  7. Not readily noticed or seen; inconspicuous: an obscure flaw.
  8. Of undistinguished or humble station or reputation: an obscure poet; an obscure family.
  9. Not clearly understood or expressed; ambiguous or vague: “an impulse to go off and fight certain obscure battles of his own spirit” (Anatole Broyard). [from dictionary.com]