Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Writing in Books

I was looking over the titles of the books on the shelf over my dresser last night and noticed a book that I had not read in a while, The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron. I pulled it down, thinking it was the copy Lynda gave me many years back, but surprisingly, it was actually her copy, annotated in very nearly every margin of every page.

This leads me to an aside, which may well be the point of this essay, about writing in books. I was not simply raised in a bookstore, I was raised in a book culture, if you will, one in which books were treated as sacred objects, to be respected and cared for. Turning the pages of a large book was to be done from the corner, not the middle of the page, lest thosed pages be forever bent, depriving subsequent readers of the privilege that we had just enjoyed. That is, a pristine book, without bends, or tears or folded pages. One should never dog-ear a page, for example, and one must never, one would never, ever write in a book.

I know this may sound strange to most people, who, in my experience anyway, seem to not only feel no compunction about marking a book up irrevocably, but really regard it as their right. A book is, after all, simply another object, owned and cared for--or not--by that owner. For most everyone, I expect, a book is naught but property, subject to the vagaries of its owner, not, as I have bizarrely come to feel, that it is somehow precious, animated even, so that even minor mistreatment is akin to abuse.

It's preposterous, I realize that, but isn't that what neurosis is all about? It shouldn't be surprising, I guess, to know that I am but an assemblage of neuroses, this being among the milder and less noticeable or disabling of the host that pretends to be me. In this case, it's led to a real love of books, and this may be seen in my newly re-awakened desire to write and make books for the rest of my life.

But that was an aside, as I said. What prompts me to write is the feeling I got when reading Lynda's annotations to her copy of The Artist's Way. Not simply copious, they are intensely personal, revealing, as a diary might, some of her longest-held and deepest-felt thoughts and feelings. To those who are not familiar with the book, I can say, without prejudicing the reader overly much, that it is a self-help book, one of a whole genre that sprang up in the post-sixties artistic 'me too' maelstrom that so dominated popular culture through the turn of the century. If this wasn't the book that coined the phrase, "your inner child", it certainly uses it freely without attribution.

In this case, the self-help is obviously directed toward the artist, but it in many ways was just one of the many the 'pyscho-cybernetic' or 'what-color-is-your-parachute' sort of 'positivistic' mind-sets and, dare I day, cults that emerged in the wake of some of the groundbreaking social developments at mid-century. Think scientology or EST. L. Ron Hubbard or Werner Erhard anyone?

The Artist's Way, though it emerges from that thread, is not so demanding nor jealous as the many for-profit endeavors mentioned above, which were self-serving to their creators, and merely thinly disguised as pseudo-self-healing methods. It does start with the premise that we are all hurt or wounded in some capacity, and that we are all in need of healing as a result. Certainly this is what attracted Lynda to this work, and clearly, from her own notes, it resonated with her in a way that I find now is much stronger than I suspected. She was, in hindsight, a gravely wounded artist, for whom art itself was both a source of pain and a release from it. In these notes she says that she felt that most of her life had been wasted thus, spent on supporting others and enabling the parasites who drained her daily of the money and will needed to become the fully-flowered artist she ever longed to be.

Sad to say, though I enjoyed a special place in her life and heart, at some level I was yet just another of those parasites; one whose needs were ever superceding her own and draining her reserves without end. This is not a lament, for in fact I was close enough to her to understand this; she in fact told me on a number of occasions that I was among the chief reasons that she considered herself to be an artistic failure. This 'failure' was not, however, entirely, or even principally about me.

The burden of supporting a long line of family members, beginning with her mother and sister and ending with me and my children, was to Lynda's mind, I believe, one of the chief debilitating factors in her artistic career. She was not shy about sharing this opinion with me, especially in moments of acute crisis. But I would be exaggerating my role in this process if I claimed to be more than a passing annoyance to her. It was my father, Bill, for whom the real anger and resentment were reserved.

On page after page, in the margins of this diary appear recriminatory comments and anguished laments about her relationship with my father. Time and time again she literally calls him out for being the source of so much of her inability to thrive as an artist. Never mind that she had had a studio of her own for about fifteen years, and that her moments of greatest productivity and creativity came well after his death had released her, in theory at least, from the burden of his faintly damning praise or outright disdain for her needs and artistic desires. Odd as it is to me that her obsession with his criticisms and/or absence of concern for her needs as an artist were so long-lasting and pervasive in her personality, it is not surprising that it amounted to a crippling condition, one that didn't necessarily dissipate, even long after his death.

Bill died in 1981 and the book was published in 1992. Yet her feelings about him were still sufficiently charged that she felt compelled to write them out copiously in the margins, on page after page, in context after context. Another dominant theme for Lynda's notes in this book, intertwined with the notes about her second husband, was money. Now, let it be said that this is no surprise to anyone who knew her, for during her lifetime, there was no subject more painful, no conversation more fraught with peril and anguish than one about money. Money, as much as art, defined her youth, her middle and old ages.

In short, money was the ever-close-to-the-surface yet unspoken motivating factor in her life. Quite simply, there was just never enough of it. In her youth, during the depression, she was so scarred by the poverty in which she was raised, that ever after she was unable to escape the tyranny that the absence of financial security imposed early upon her. Even later in life, when she had officially retired to receive annuity checks from John Hancock and Social Security and thus had enough monthly income to afford the rent on both her apartment and the studio that she kept here for so many years, she still worried and dithered over expenses, especially for herself.

Money was in and of itself a dominant concern of hers, and consequently, I believe, most of our most severe conflicts came over money. Curious, though, is the fact that despite the widely differing perspective that we two had on this subject that was to me also of considerable concern, it did not rise to the level of a neurosis in me as it did for Lynda, and thankfully so, as I have enough of those already.

You see, I recall that many of our conflicts arose from the fact that Lynda wanted to give us--me, really--more help than I needed or was prepared to accept. I must here at the outset of this thought make it clear that I did accept her help, however grudgingly, for many more years than I by rights ought to have, but I also hope to make it clear that I was forever caught on the horns of a unique dilemma, one from which I never successfully extricated myself. Only Lynda's death has at last quieted this anxiety, and it should be clear from this entry that even now I have thoughts about it.

The dilemma was this. On one horn, Lynda wanted to give us financial support as an expression of her love. It is fair to say that I enjoyed a special day-to-day friendship with her that was born primarily of proximity and differed from her relationships with my siblings for that reason, but that relationship came at a price. To Lynda, it was not merely enough to tell someone that you loved them. Though she was never hesitant to tell me that she loved me, it wasn't the sort of thing that came up in conversation, or even at the end of a visit. I was the one who said, "I love you Mom" and who initiated the hug with which we parted ritually. For Lynda, the evidence that she loved me--us--was not in the words we exchanged, but our actions, specifically in her actions, i.e., in her ability to 'help' us.

Now, as I've said, we needed--and received--a lot of that help. She bought our groceries, clothed our children, and helped us buy our house. In fact, she bought it for us and it was only when I was in my forties and working at a fairly high level at UT that we actually undertook the purchase ourselves. She saved and gave us money for our children's education, took them to plays and operas and concerts, paid for our plane tickets to Michigan and New York. She bought gas for our cars and brought food every time she ever came to our house, save when she was disabled at the very end. It was not simply a symbolic statement to her. It was the essence of her life, giving. She would say over and over how important it was to her to able to give to us, rather than a charity or worse, but here arises the difference of perspective that I spoke of earlier.

Here then, was the other horn of the dilemma: declining her offers to help as I became more financially secure somehow seemed damning her to generosity. Reading the margin notes of her book, it would seem that her largesse was in some ways tied to our failure; that whether we took advantage of her desire to help or declined it, she was somehow deprived of the opportunity to succeed as an artist. The hidden disappointment and unspoken resentment that she held for me was in apparent contradiction with her outward appreciation for what I perceived to be my constant support of her ambitions.

It seemed to me like it was fair trade, my support for hers, but to her it was an apparently very complicated accounting problem. Yet to be fair, we must consider much more. With Lynda, I know from experience, there were many facets to the gem, so to speak. To focus only on one of these facets is unfair, for the the jewel is best appreciated as a whole. I admit, I was a bit surprised by the negative assessment she gave to her artistic ambitions and the role I played in that difficult dance but it certainly makes sense.

Why? Well, in my own way, I came to be caught up in those ambitions. I did what I could to her her realize them, and I thought she enjoyed a fair bit of success, in the most practical and mundane of ways. I helped her set up and move her studio three times, stretched canvases, stacked paintings, hauled boxes, bought canvases and paint, mats and frames. I helped her organize, photograph and annotate the three dozen Voices of The Ghetto series, which I had made into a book under her direction. She and I and hauled the fifteen boxes full of those drawings to Dallas, Houston, Temple and San Antonio, and we even sent them to Georgia for a show. I printed up countless copies of her resume and her Artist's Statement; printed labels for slides that I assembled in sheets and mailed them to dozens of galleries, collectors and workshops. We made a business of her art, and it kept us engaged and active together.

I enjoyed this time, and I know she did too. It was a wonderful flowering of her long held desires and we shared many moments of appreciation for her long life and good fortune at the end. I came to eat lunch with her in her studio as often as twice a week when she was in her last studio, at the Artplex. This busy and vibrant community was the background for our many conversations about art and life. Of course, this meant especially my life--though we referred to hers frequently as well--and rarely did we talk about money. My experience with the subject and a reasonable income--hence, financial independence from her--after so many years of struggling at the University had made that conversation superfluous, or so I thought.

In all that time, I assumed--perhaps wrongly, of course--that we had, over time, reached what I could call a 'good point' about money in our relationship. This point, I felt, had now for many years allowed her to offer support and for me to politely decline it without serious consequences. Over time I had come to understand that she was happy with what she had done for me and my family in our early years, and that she was satisfied with no longer having to help us financially. Though that may well be true, it might be hard to discern that from the notes in the margins of this book. Recall, if you will, that this only one of the several faces of Lynda.

It is interesting to me, ironic ultimately, to find these thoughts in a place I've never ventured to go myself--even with all my interest in self-examination and writing: the margins of a book. Shocking it is, really, to discover that it is in fact Lynda--whose admonition against this practice still today deters me from doing the same--who has revealed to me some of her most closely held thoughts by engaging in it. It sure makes me wonder if I should also be so bold, or if these long passages will suffice.

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