I think often of something Jill Tarter, ex-Director, Center for SETI Research, said when I asked her about working on a project she might not see “completed” in her lifetime:
I’m not going to be bitter and disappointed in my old age. I’m going to celebrate the fact that I was lucky enough to be part of getting something started that has the potential of having a profound impact….
Tomorrow, the SETI Institute may fold up its tent and go away because we can’t find the funding to keep it going, but it’s also enormously satisfying and there’s something about the opportunity, the privilege to work on a scientific question that everyone can relate to. That’s it. You can’t say anything else other than it is a privilege to be able to spend a career doing that.
Even though I have the memory her saying this to me directly, and have her saying this captured for posterity, it’s still easy slip into the role of the bitter aging artist. The work can be slow and tedious and it seems never to go right. And will it ever be done? And why aren’t people returning phone calls? And why has the computer decide not to open the damned file? And why does everyone on Facebook have such a fabulous, successful yummy life? And what’s the point of making a movie anyway when people are just going to watch 58 seconds of it on their iPhones and then stop to text friends and check email and go on Facebook and read The Onion headlines and never return to your film again? Why ef’ing bother? Nobody cares. What’s the point?
Yes, it’s easy go down this road.
Which is why on the days I have to work on MY work, I drink my coffee out of one of three mugs. These mugs have magical powers; they can (sometimes) keep the bitterness at bay.
There’s this one, purchased during my first artist residency (Centrum Creative Arts and Education in Port Towsend, WA). I walked to the nearby Port Townsend Marine Science Center and bought this mug because of the curious octopus. I left a favorite red mug I had brought there and this came back home with me.
There’s this one, which was a gift from an estranged friend. I’ve always loved the paper cups with this design. But more than that, the words resonate: “We are happy to serve you.” It is important for me to remember that I am serving the film and whatever else I happen to be making, that those things are bigger than me.
And then there’s this one, purchased when I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. I save this one for days when I am way on the low and bitter side of the spectrum. It bolsters my ego a little to remember that some folks thought highly enough of my work to let me in their club. But also this mug reminds me of one specific moment.
I was in my rustic studio editing. I had set up my work area so that when I sat at the computer I looked at a wall with my notes on it and positioned a moveable wall to block any chance of gazing out of the window while I was at my desk. One could gaze out those windows for hours if you weren’t careful.
I took a break and made a cup of coffee. My guitar sat in an armchair, stories and a dictionary consumed another desk, a book of Flannery O’Connor letters rested on the nightstand. I looked out the window and down the tree-lined dirt road. It started snowing and suddenly I felt blessed. Blessed to be where I was at that moment (MacDowell makes it easy to feel this way), but also blessed to be able to do what I do. What a privilege to be given time and space, and not just at residencies, but in my life, to do these things. To read, to play music, to write, to work on a film with amazing people about amazing people. I was profoundly happy that moment and I said out loud to myself, “Remember this. Remember this. Take this with you to the grave.”
It seems there’s a big difference between someone, even someone you greatly admire, explaining to you why you’re privileged and apprehending it first hand. And I can’t always summon that feeling, but I can remember that I had it, that I understood with all of my being what a privilege it is to be able to spend a life doing this. Sometimes all I need is a mug, sometimes that’s enough.
Do you have a mug, pen, notebook, article of clothing, etc. that has special powers? I’d love to hear about it, or see it. Leave a comment or send a photo. Really, I mean it!