Reminders and Reasons

I just finished reading Powers of Two, a book that I got in the New Year’s book exchange from the artist known as Rania, whose work is the featured image for this post. It’s about confluence, about the ways creative partnerships accomplish more than the ‘lone genius’ ever could. The whole book was fascinating and led me down all kinds of new roads in terms of research and reading but Shenk’s vulnerability and poetics in the epilogue was everything. The admission that he came to this writing from a position of personal inquiry made him more credible somehow. I was really grateful for that glimpse into his process.

The epilogue begins:

I am disorganized, moody, vain—a writer, in other words, and though I’ve leaned heavily on my editor, principally, plus a battalion of friends and colleagues while writing this book, there is no saving me from myself when a deadline nears and I have to produce more or less alone.” (239)

But directed by his editor (the container to his liquid in the endeavor of this particular book) to end the book inspiring the reader to risk confluence, Shenk writes some instructions for building strong partnerships, which he says he himself needs as much as anyone, which includes acceptance:

The next thing to do is accept. Accept that your partner is a pain in the ass. Accept that you are a pain in the ass, so the two of you are made for each other.

Accept that what makes you furious about your partner is wrapped up with what excites you. What you most love and what drives you most crazy is the same thing, just on a bad hair day. Accept that the people you need will please you and disappoint you but that the index of the creative experience is not your pleasure or disappointment. Your thoughts and emotions are not immaterial, but they are not the crux of the matter. The crux of the matter is the work.

Accept that reality is not in your mind. Reality is between you and another person. (245) [emphasis mine]

It isn’t simply the creative person’s search for a savior who might help her corral the wildness and manic whimsy of her creativity. It’s the fluidity of the roles that makes sense. It isn’t that one person does the drudge work and the other gets to float along dreaming—the person dreaming does so rigorously, in a disciplined way, and the person doing the ‘containing’ does so creatively, flexibly–and sometimes needs help corralling some part of their process. In healthy partnerships, people are able move between roles as needed–which of course, requires acknowledgment of need (whelp). When we risk and reach, we get so much further.

I’ve just started reading Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, a lyrical meditation on the ways we seek a container (the liquid/container archetypes are one of Shenk’s ideas) to lose ourselves in someone else—her father, her lover—the thrill of nearly being poured out.

This weekend I read an awesome essay by Viet Than Nguyen, “In Praise of Doubt and Uselesness” in the LA Times about the necessity of uncertainty and blind faith (and a little ignorance) in a creative endeavor.

Why do we do it? Why do we risk? What do we get? In love and in friendship and in hard work? Your opening phrase is from the epigraph on the poem below: “What we get from this adventure is…”

Why We Climb Mountains

by Marti Noel
What we get from this adventure is just sheer
joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.
—George Mallory

The ledge invites and frightens, loose gravel
scratching solid rock beneath your feet,
until the grating sound—the rasp and rattle—
is silenced as you step into complete
nothing, carabined between simple faith
and gravity. Will the tether hold?
There is a pull, a tension, in the fray
of scattered thoughts and fear of lost control
pressed against the weightlessness of free fall
on a stretch of braided rope. It takes skill,
and grit, to climb while clinging to sheer wall,
inching upward, pulled by strength and will;
but then, the descent offers you rebirth,
as you coil and push away from Earth.

Sometimes I feel so tired of fighting to do my work, of navigating all the politics and layers of bureaucracy. The vague not-quite-answers in response to very simple yes or no questions, the tap-dancing and side-stepping and stupidity. It’s not the behavior of the vast majority of my colleagues, but there are always a few people whose fear of feeling/personal responsibility is so great, they take up a lot of space with their bullshit. It’s been this way always, since the very beginning.

But it is totally worth fighting for. Even though the love itself, the engine of the whole thing, also makes me vulnerable. Below is the first poem anyone ever wrote me, back at the old Georgia Avenue Walter Reed. The woman who wrote it is no longer in touch, but I remember her so clearly–she was really wonderful, still is, I’m sure. She gave me this just when I needed it, in the Spring of 2011. Last weekend while I was going through papers, I came across it tucked into my journal from that time. She gives me lots of credit in the poem, but it wasn’t me, it was us. I reached, sure–but she took the risk, in spite of all she’d been through, to reach back.

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