Friday, January 18, 2013

Alter Egos and a Monster

"What do you do?" is a question I ask, dodge, and struggle to answer. Maybe it's because I'm new in town or maybe it's all the forms to be completed when shifting life from one place to another, but it has come up with some frequency.

Today a friend's work colleague, upon introduction to us, chose to skip over the work relationship confines and said, "Really, I'm a film maker." I love that about Athens-- everyone has an alter ego-- business consultant by day, pottery maker by evening; physicist by training, landscaper by choice; editor by living, tofu maker by practice.

I loved that the film maker immediately staked his identity to his art. It brought me back to my discomfort with the starting question because whether written or asked, it also stands in for a pigeon hole and a "give me a place to start" in conversation meaning it is a polite way to begin. It's not the question's fault if I struggle with owning my alter identity. Whether or not I am successful as a writer or cook, it is what I aim to do; it is my artistic calling; I might need to get comfortable saying it.

At the intersection of travel and longing, I discovered a monster that called daily, then weekly, then monthly, and then after with occasional whimpers.

One day I chose to find the source of those sounds. I walked down darkened steps following the guttural murmurings into an inner sanctum. Deep within me a beast, brown and hairy, sat on a striped mattress bare of any bed coverings and within a cage. Deprived of humanity, contact, and nurturing, he was left with little to do. He sat pulling at the hairs on his outstretched arm. Though the light was dim, he struck me as lonely and hungry. I sat on a metal stool across from him. I offered him some gum from my pocket, poking it through the bars. We sat amicably chewing gum, looking over at each other from time to time. I blew a bubble and then checked to see if he was watching. He was. The bubble's pop echoed in the quiet. I grinned; he grinned. I made to show him how to blow a bubble by prolongating the steps-- chew the gum smacking my teeth together with big bites, push your tongue through the gum thrusting my tongue into the gum and out toward him, blow air around the gum with the sound of rushing air emitting from within my mouth. He tried. We laughed.

I lost my fear of the monster whimpering within that day.

As a regular visitor, I discovered that the monster liked to play. He liked making stuff-- paper crafts and glitter, rubber stamps, and knitting. He liked eating stuff-- new textures, different flavors, anything really. One day I realized I had the power to open the gate. I opened the gate. He was free. I saw him from time to time, and he showed me things he was making. Like a child with a first collage or a painting full of drips, runs, and murky shapes, he was thrilled with all that he made. He went on to the next thing, making and making things, content, happy in his disposition and yet focused on the joy of doing.

And so fueled the creative spark that had grown nearly extinct within me.

I had thought of an artist as someone who could draw or paint. My handwriting is illegible and even now I can barely color within the lines. Like a recovered addict, I am painfully aware of the time I have lost and of the intensity of my desire to make things, to create. I may find beauty someday, but for now my task is to chisel, to peel, to discard, and to remove. Some where I will find that most beautiful thing that only I can find.

I experimented with cooking, making collages, arranging flowers, and writing in Japan. I loved making things even when I didn't know precisely what to do with the creations-- the poorly knitted scarf became a child's belt, the flopped dish became my husband's lunch. The more I did, the more I wanted to do, success or failure was not my concern.

As an observer of Japanese culture, design of the smallest things surprised me. The artful construction of a bowl of noodles, the precision of a Zen rock garden, the precise arrangement of each flower in an Ikebana demonstration; each effort done with deliberate intent. Everyday street food is beautiful in Japan. Cucumbers and eggplants glistening in iced water or the fragrant steam rising in clouds above the large white domed buns within large round bamboo baskets. Plastic food replicas in Japan sit in restaurant display windows to advertise the delights within and to model exactly what you will receive. It struck me there, in Japan, food is art too.

In the hustle and bustle of living, traveling, and working, it is hard to breakout from the confines of expectations and roles, plus with so much stimulus incoming, the call of inspiration can be missed. In search of a quieter place where the pace was a steady trout instead of a flat out run, I came to Athens. Focusing on home life and making things was a part of it, but owning up to it by saying directly, "I'm an artist too," hasn't quite managed to find it's way to my lips and yet my every dodge sits long into the night with me.

I write to see where I end up. I cook to see a transformation of raw ingredients. Though it took courage to find the source, to claim to be an artist means producing, making, and trying. I might resist the label or fail to use the words, but life is more interesting when I am making things.

There is no going back to what was, once you let go. Let go.
Art by a Munster