The other night; I got a call from an old friend. I was driving, and lost in an unfamiliar city, and nearly about to lose my mind because a cop car was tailing me. I was not driving my own car. Not stolen. But I hadn’t asked where the registration was, and I’d have little stamina to explain myself after wrestling with the prim voice of the frustrated GPS computer-lady. I pictured catastrophe. The flip side of creativity: a constant ability to picture catastrophe. So I pulled over into the parking lot of an apartment complex, and I answered my phone from there. The cop drove on.
My friend on the line was asking for advice — and lord knows I’ve asked for enough of it over recent years, collecting glints of wisdom from my army of smart and hilarious friends. (Recently I’ve even teamed up with a fellow writer for bi-weekly what-the-hell-do-we-do sessions.)
But I’ve also found wisdom somewhere else, lately. I saw an incredible play the other night, at the theater company where I now work, fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life by Chicago writer Sarah Gubbins. It’s about a young woman whose only lifeline in a small-town high school is writer Carson McCullers, long dead, but whose book eases her heart. Afterwards, writer Dan Savage talked about growing up gay in a small town, and how the It Gets Better project was intended to reach across the divide between young people and the adults who’ve successfully made their way.
The project, though it has its detractors, seems to me one of the most beautiful manifestations of why art matters to me. And technology has made it possible. (I am such a nerd for spreading goodness through digital media in new ways.) In both the play and Savage’s project, links from artist to viewer change lives. The messages are simple; the effect profound and real.
Find heroes. Listen.
Sometimes new, simple platitudes rise to the front of my consciousness, the way waves suck back the shoreline to reveal crabs and shells. Last year the phrase was, “Seize your heart around the kind and beautiful world.” Lately it’s been, “Hold hard to your heroes.” If you don’t see any recognizable help in your geographic area. If you are lost; if the GPS is guiding you astray. Find someone who can speak to you through a book, through a play, through a poem. It’s so simple. But as David Foster Wallace says below, “the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance”.
Of course, as we closed the conversation, I also said, “Maybe don’t ask for too much advice. It’s possible to over-think things.” It’s always, always possible to forget why you got in the car, how you ended up here, by the side of the road. There was the cop car. There was the GPS. The phone rang.
Despite the warning. Here are a few words for the road that I’ve collected lately. (I just used this first snippet to kick off a talk I gave this week.)
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
… The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
— David Foster Wallace; commencement speech
Intention doesn’t sweeten./ It should be picked young/ and eaten. Sometimes only hours/ separate the cotyledon/ from the wooden plant./ Then if you want to eat it/ you can’t.
— Kay Ryan, “Intention”
A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to and what they really are.
— Tove Jansson, Moominsummer Madness
…if Bruce Springsteen’s story has a central issue, it’s whether dawning maturity is compatible with the rock-and-roll spirit.
— Dave Marsh, Born To Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story
Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.
— Cheryl Strayed, “Tiny Beautiful Things”