Blood and Water

“Blood is thicker than water”, when used in the context of family over friends, is in fact a wildly incorrect bastardisation.

The true, full quote is “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” and refers to relationships forged by choice holding deeper meaning than those of mere biology.

114621_web_sRGB“Sarah & Hagar” from my Sacred & Profane series.

Seven

I am pretty allergic to lists, especially those that profess to be steps to a better you, or a summation of platitudes. But let’s be honest… a personal blog requires the writer to engage in a certain amount of navel-gazing self-reflection, layered with a strong sense of self-confidence. How else could I share my life and thoughts with total strangers… When I see lists that purport to be a path to personal happiness or creative success I cringe. But this morning I saw a short list that really resonated with me. Maria Popova authors one of my favorite sites, called Brain Pickings, and her list really struck a chord, so I personalized it.

Here are seven things I believe:

Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for negative capability. I struggle with this in my images all the time. I often feel this need to explain every aspect of my image, to justify every creative choice within the context of the project’s style. I usually feel like I have to earn the right to a certain way of expressing things creatively. We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. Regardless of what we do, we’re expected to have an opinion, an artist statement. This will bleed all the way into creative expression, the choice of a certain visual vernacular. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know why I like this.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself. My current project (The Sacred & Profane) has been through so many iterations that I doubt the images I created a year ago will even be part of the final selection.

Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards. Obviously you shouldn’t ignore opportunities that will lead to recognition, but make sure you’re clear about the choices you make, and what they mean to you.

Be generous. I live by this rule. It drives every decision I make. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. Help everyone you can; it won’t always be reciprocal, but if you can think of no other reason then do it simply because it will come back to you in volume. You will always come out ahead if you’re generous… but don’t be taken for granted. The minute it is clear someone doesn’t appreciate who you are and what you offer you need to shut them down completely. They had their chance.

Build pockets of stillness into your life. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. Run. Go for walks with smart music. Meditate, if you know how to… I don’t, but I like to set endorphins free. Zone out on the elliptoid machine at the gym. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming… It used to irritate my father when my eyes glazed over and my mind wandered… but I was actually processing the lesson at hand, or visualizing an outcome. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. AND: It is really important to step away from distractions… there are entire social networks, video games and websites that can be dismissed as guilty little pleasures… but every minute spent there deprives you of the chance to be creative.

Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment. You need to dream, you need to give your psyche a chance to be part of the creative conversation. That means giving your mind and body time to rest while your subconscious chews through the materials. Be as disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But it’s really just a profound failure of self-respect and lack of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs? Stay out late and play occasionally. And keep whatever schedule works for you… if you prefer working late at night then sleep late. But get a lot of sleep. I function best in the morning, and I like to get up early, which means I go to bed surprisingly early.

When people tell you who they are you should believe them. Don’t be snarky, suspicious, dismissive or condescending. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who You are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who You are (and what you stand for) reveal a great deal about them… but absolutely nothing about you. Try being a business man and artist at the same time! It’s hard for me. Believe me, people will see what they want to see. And that often means that people who like you will see a lot of great things, and people who don’t will only see things they dislike. But you are You, and you get to create You. It’s your job. It’s the meaning of life. Make up a version of You, and then live in You.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” Our culture of immediacy seems to overlook this at will. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. The flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

So that’s a short list …and those who remember my old “Circa 100 Things I Believe” list will be pleased to know that I’m about to resurrect that list.

Own Your Decisions

You don’t need anyone’s affection or approval in order to be good enough. If you live off a man’s compliments, you’ll die from his criticism. When someone rejects or abandons or judges you, it isn’t actually about you. It’s about them and their own insecurities, limitations, and needs, and you don’t have to internalize that. Your worth isn’t contingent upon other people’s acceptance of you — it’s something inherent. You exist, and therefore, you matter. You’re allowed to voice your thoughts and feelings. You’re allowed to assert your needs and take up space. You’re allowed to hold onto the truth that who you are is exactly enough. You didn’t just happen, you are the sum total of the choices you’ve made. And you’re allowed to remove anyone from your life who makes you feel otherwise.

You don’t ever have to feel guilty about removing toxic people from your life. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a relative, romantic interest, employer, childhood friend or new acquaintance – you don’t have to make room for people who cause you pain or make you feel small. It’s one thing if a person owns up to their behavior and makes an effort to change. But if a person disregards your feelings, ignores your boundaries, and continues to treat you in a harmful way, they have to go. But don’t expect them to keep loving you, don’t keep pining for their affection. Stop demanding their attention. Removing someone cannot be a tool to get someone’s attention.

There is a big difference between giving up and letting go. Giving up means selling yourself short. It means allowing fear and struggle to limit your opportunities and keep you stuck. Letting go means freeing yourself from something that is no longer serving you. It means removing toxic people and belief systems from your life so that you can make room for relationships and ideas that are conducive to your well-being and happiness. Giving up reduces your life. Letting go expands it. Giving up is imprisoning. Letting go is liberation. Giving up is self-defeat. Letting go is self-care. So the next time you make the decision to release something or someone that is stifling your happiness and growth, and a person has the audacity to accuse you of giving up or being weak, remind yourself of the difference. Remind yourself that you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to live your life in the way that feels right. No one has the authority to tell you who to be or how to live. No one gets to decide what your life should look like or who should be a part of it…

But nor does anyone get to judge you for sticking it out. Because beyond giving up and letting go, there is a third option: taking control. Stand up, know who you are, and face the situation. Don’t give up, and don’t let go. Own it.

Start living. You may not have ended up where you intended to go. But trust, for once, that you have ended up where you needed to be. Trust that you are in the right place at the right time. Trust that your life is enough. Trust that You are enough. So stop comparing, stop feeling guilty, and definitely stop seeking people’s approval, love, attention. Its unnecessary, and unattractive. Own your life, and take pride.

Grief, and time spent alone

Two weeks ago my father passed away. He was almost eighty, but anyone who knew him considered him sixty-five years old, if that. He was vibrantly alive. Sharp as a knife, gregarious, opinionated, and he had a huge appetite for life. Human curiosity demands an answer to the immediate question: it was a heart attack. But really all I can say is that he just stopped living. The medical specificity is ultimately irrelevant, though it lends comfort to know he didn’t suffer. And it would have pleased him immensely to have never been seen as feeble or weak.

He was a decorated combat fighter pilot, an honor student, a successful businessman, and someone who loved literature and good conversation. He was also a tough father who expected a lot, and he made his own success look easy. He took great risks. The brave rarely consider themselves fearless, and he was very much alive when he was strategizing his next life-campaign. Some people never live. They move from one safe zone to another, avoiding tragedy, life and the inherent feelings. The small moments of joy are good enough in a life spent avoiding pain and failure. He lived with a risk/reward profile most lack the courage to assume.

I’m beginning to miss him.

One of the hard parts of surviving a larger-than-life parent is the constant contact people seek. Everyone wants to talk to me, all the time. They only have that one topic. Many are reminded of someone they lost, and will project their experience on to mine. Others are pushed into recognizing a mortality they have denied thus far. How can a man filled with such vitality, who made youth seem eternal, suddenly cease? They begin doing their own math. All these people want to talk to me. They’re sharing extremely special memories, but their timing is off. I’m not ready to have these conversations, but I am forced to stand and listen. A very large number of people felt very close to him, who want to be consoled, so I spend my days absorbing strangers’ sadness and making them feel better, while they load more grief on to me.

And they all tell me not to be sad.

We are not allowed this. We are allowed to be deeply into art, or Buddhism, or photography, or music, but we are not allowed to be deeply sad. Grief is a thing that we are encouraged to “let go of,” to “move on from,” and we are told specifically how this should be done. Countless well-intentioned friends, distant family members, bankers, lawyers, and strangers I met at parties recited the famous five stages of grief to me: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I am alarmed by how many people know them, how deeply this single definition of the grieving process had permeated our cultural consciousness. Not only am I supposed to feel these five things, I am expected to feel them in that order, and other feelings must be reinterpreted to fit the template. Expressing any other feelings is anathema, because all these sad people would look at me like I’m an emotional cripple, or a callous ingrate.

What I want more than anything is time alone. And I just want to spend some time being sad, and I want to mourn the small pieces, the moving parts of a relationship that can now never fall perfectly into their places. I am surrounded all day long by people who want to be closer to the memory of my father, or need some family business issue to be resolved, or who simply want a piece of me. They pull at me, they take energy from me as they bathe in their own feelings, and they’re sucking the creativity and strength out of me. So I feel like a stone, an efficient machine, an executor of a will. But I can find no chance to feel like a son who lost his role model, or a man who will now lead his tribe. I honor my father’s life by working hard. His voice will be in my head forever, especially now as I absorb his responsibilities. I feel incredibly far away from creativity, and all I really want to do is walk around and shoot pictures.

There is a lot of work that remains to be done, and then I will take time for myself. Soon (hopefully) I will begin creating art again – with more effort, more determination, and a hell of a lot more risk. Because that’s when I feel the most alive.