When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, who is now fifteen years old, I remember vividly what I have come to refer to as my “Tylenol moment”: there was a commercial about a parent making a late-night run to a drugstore for Tylenol to soothe a feverish child, and I just freaked. “My child is going to get sick? And I’m supposed to know when to give Tylenol to a sick child? In the middle of the night?” Children’s Tylenol became a metaphor for this mysterious new life I was embarking on, fraught with so many unknowns. I laugh now, of course; if only knowing when to give Tylenol to a sick child were the hardest part of being a parent! But still, I look back on that “Tylenol moment” and realize it was the moment when I suddenly got it, what a crazy wild ride I was in for, and that I really knew almost nothing at all, but that I probably ought to fasten my seatbelt, because there was no getting off now!
I had a similar moment as an artist – the label “artist” being an identity I allowed myself only recently — which I’ve come to think of as my “Jackson Pollack moment.” Three years ago this fall I looked around and thought, “What next?” My kids were both in school, where I was coming off of a long stint on the board of trustees; I had no interest whatsoever in going back to law (I’m trained, though no longer licensed, as a lawyer); I’d gotten myself totally stretched thin-to-the-breaking-point in some church work/community organizing in Kensington (one of the poorest, roughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia). I’d been blogging for years, but had never thought of myself as a “real writer,” much less an “artist.” I decided to give myself a year to take myself seriously as a writer, and see where it went.
That year was heady and exciting and full of trips to New York where several friends let me crash on their couches while I took writing retreats, and, more importantly, they took me even more seriously as a writer than I took myself. On one of those trips, I went to see MOMA’s Abstract Expressionist Exhibit, which took my breath away (in large part because I let it; rather than feeling dumb for not “understanding” it, I just decided to sort of let it wash over me, and oh, my!) The show was extraordinary, exquisite: twenty-five or so of the most accomplished abstract expressionist painters, hung together for several months on the walls of the premier museum of modern art.
But the thing that gripped me more than anything was a note next to one of Jackson Pollack’s paintings, which said that his whole life long, he was gripped by an almost crippling doubt. “Is this really art?” he asked his wife. And yet he kept painting.
Now maybe Jackson Pollack really knew deep down inside that he was great, and would be one of the headliners in MOMA’s Abstract Expressionist Exhibit in the first decade of the 21st Century. But it seems likely to me that he couldn’t have known that for sure. And still he painted.
But even that realization wasn’t my “Jackson Pollack” moment. Rather, it was this: the realization that for every Jackson Pollack, who decades later would be hung on the walls of MOMA as the shining light of a whole artistic movement, there must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other painters who also doubted, and also kept painting despite their doubts, and who would never be hung on the walls of MOMA, but without whom there wouldn’t have been a movement, much less a shining light like Jackson Pollack.
That was the “aha moment”: that for every great artist, the artist who will be remembered a century from now, there must be a whole community of artists who will never be remembered, but who are critical, who are the river in which the great artists flow.
And to get to be part of that, in any small way, is such an honor.
My life as a writer began with my first blog, and lately I’ve been itching to return to this medium. I’m not exactly sure where this will lead, or whether I’ll really follow through, or what will come of this urge. But I do think it’s an honor – a miracle, really – that I get to be an artist, part of this “communion of saints,” as we say in my faith, this “great cloud of witnesses” who believe that words and beauty matter and feel driven to making them, keeping them alive.
So, yeah, we’ll see where this goes.