I graduated from college almost a year ago. I’ll never forget the numbness I felt on one of the most important days of my life. It had been four years of heartbreak, death, creation, disillusionment, reinvention, purging, building, and living right on the surface of all that I had been and all that I was going to be. I put gold glitter stars on my cap and walked through a day dream of celebration. Summer came but closure didn’t. Fall flashed like a big red NO EXIT sign.
I was exhausted. My bones were done. The jig was up.
So this a story about having the courage to step back.
To be an artist means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me it’s always been about courage. At one point I likened art-making to pyromania. I demanded that we all work with that level of passion and commitment — the kind that sets everything on fire. In hindsight, I think that’s the easiest part. The hard part is when all the flames are out and the ashes are pressed onto the soles of your feet and you have to keep walking on them. It’s not glamorous and nobody’s watching anymore. Real courage starts there.
So I marched on with a lot of ashes — the remains of my naive manifestos, my innocence in the face of love, my trust in a system that promised to nurture me and then lowered its gaze as I walked out, the ego that told me I was special and larger than life, the promise that everything happened for a reason, my mother’s body buried deep in the earth with a splintered family left behind, and the scraps of a treasure map that had led me to a dead end.
I told myself I was moving to a big city closer to home. I told myself that this made sense. I visited the city and felt the streets closing in on me. I turned to my father and baby sister and they hugged me and gave me permission to come home.
It wasn’t a sexy choice. It wasn’t glamorous. I labeled myself a failure and crawled into bed.
I’ve been home for six months. I’m working two jobs and taking two classes and volunteering. I’m running five days a week and yet I feel like I’ve finally stopped sprinting. I’m finally beginning to realize that life is not about speed.
It’s about riding with the windows down, music blasting as the sun sets while looking across the dashboard at a 40-year old woman dancing along who has lived her life with fierce joy in the face of intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s about watching my 5-year old brother set up all of his stuffed animals on the bed and welcome them to our two-man band’s performance at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday. It’s about lying on the ground of my bedroom crying with my 17-year old sister as we both admit that life isn’t fair but that we can’t let bitterness become us. It’s about sitting on the roof with my dad in the freezing cold, dangling off the edge as we clip one Christmas light on the gutter at a time. It’s about standing on the side of a highway in the middle of Kentucky, realizing that love might win. It’s about slowly returning to my childhood home and letting love fill in the holes of loss and stitch up the mess that I left. It’s about that one flower that sprouts in the dirt and is so small and fragile that no one stops to see it but that doesn’t make it any less brave for growing.
I’ve finally landed on the feet that were carrying me all along. Endorphins only get fired between our synapses when we’re in more pain than usual — when our bodies are pushed, more chemicals are pumped through us to dull the pain. Maybe you have to plunge bones first into the mud if you ever really want to feel any joy at all — the good stuff — the 100 proof joy that sends sparks flying out of your eyes. I’ve finally paused and as the synapses keep firing I don’t have to work as hard to dull what I’m feeling. I have the space to give in to it. And all of a sudden things begin to make some sense.
James Marcia, a clinical and developmental psychologist, created a series of identity statuses that combine different levels of commitment and exploration. The most interesting part of this is the “MAMA cycle,” a bouncing back and forth from the Moratorium status to Achievement and back again. Moratorium is the stage of high exploration and low commitment — investing fully in the possibilities before diving in. Achievement is high exploration and high commitment — taking a deep breath and stepping off the edge of the cliff to sink or swim. According to Marcia, the healthiest individuals complete this song and dance time and time again. We’re meant to continue evaluating who we are and what we need at every stage of our lives. We grow out of our old pots and would be fools to stay there, spilling over and starving for more water. According to clinical psychology, your first identity is just that — the first one — and therefore should not be regarded as the final product.
I had to repot. I signed up to act and direct and there was a map to make a career out of it and I jumped ship. I have to own that. I have to take responsibility for my precious life and honor the way my experiences have changed me. I let go of all of the pre-conceived notions of what I was supposed to do and become. I allowed myself to explore without commitment. I settled into the dirt and took a breath without waiting for a panel of judges to commend me for it and, lo and behold, I found an authentic voice inside my gut that told me what the next right thing was.
And of course this is called the MAMA cycle. The irony is not lost on me.
You have permission to grow. You have permission to step back and pause. The only person you need to answer to is that quiet voice in your gut that will eventually be heard. Listen to it before you’re starving for fresh water. Give it what it needs. Then let it change and start all over. Any human being who’s let life move them will understand. Wrap your arms around that all-too-human stomach of yours and say “Thank you.” Have the courage to fail in the eyes of everyone who doesn’t know your journey like you do.
We’re all artists. We wake up every day and decorate our lives with all of the courage that we can muster. Every life is put together with whatever means are available and that’s what makes it beautiful. Grab whatever tool is nearest and break out of that pot.