It was well after midnight. I sat in a Lower East Side basement theatre watching artist after artist step up to an open mic, tell stories, sing homemade jamz, howl poetry, dance the human condition–pretty much anything you could imagine as long as it didn’t involve fire, or glitter (house rules). Some were succeeding brilliantly, some were failing brilliantly, everyone was trying passionately.
A photographer took the stage. She wanted to take a picture of us. She also wanted to read a letter, written by Martha Graham to friend and fellow choreographer Agnes DeMille. It was the first time I’d heard the famous letter and it was the perfect place to hear it: the preponderantly artso-boho audience responded as if it were some St. Crispin Day rallying call for the artistic endeavor.
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.
* * *
In late 2009 I received my nomination to serve in the Peace Corps. I’d spent the previous 3 years in California teaching college writing, and I’d loved it, loved it fall and spring and summer, but the nomination had put things in perspective: I would have a few months of downtime before 2 years of a set thing. Who knew when I’d have that opportunity again? I could teach for another semester. Or I could take a self-imposed sabbatical. Travel the country. Write a novel, maybe.
The decision was hard but the decision was also easy.
So from February through June I migrated: Los Angeles, Taos, Houston, New Orleans, New York. It was a productive five months: I wrote 4 nonfiction pieces
and 7 stories, recorded 13 songs (including 4 original compositions), filmed & edited a short film, a rap music video, a videogame trailer, birthed a collaborative music project, gave 5 podcast interviews, snapped 1 photoessay, ferried 2 literary journals to publication, memorized 600 Mandarin characters, and finished 1 novel (my first!).
More importantly, I came I saw I lived.
In Taos I rented a one-room schoolhouse and hunkered down through freezing winter, writing 8 and 10 and 12 hours a day and when it was warm enough I hiked the mountains and wrote my novel on barren hills to the soundtrack of the Taos hum.
In New Orleans I did French Quarter Fest and CrawFest and RiverFest and of course Jazz Fest and ate crawfish bread and po-boys and beignettes and marched in the Social Aid and Pleasure Club Easter Second Line and drank coffee at Rue de la Course and sat on my Upper Garden District bayou balcony drinking pinot noir in the deepsouth air you could not just feel but really and truly see.
In New York I busked my trumpet on a subway platform, wailed Alanis Morisette karaoke, moshed to punk in a knitting factory, ate $3 falafel at Mamoun’s, napped on a Hudson pier, came home and fell asleep to neighbors making love behind paperthin walls, came home and made love behind paperthin walls myself, walked the Brooklyn Bridge, walked a naked-people gate, attended a Scientology meeting in Times Square, I hooted and hollered at NY neo burlesque (glitter and all), I open-miked, I flea marketed, drank uncountable sazeracs, I sat on an iron fire escape in Bushwick and wrote a novel and I saw and heard and tasted America and I made love to America and I was the sight and sound and taste of America and I became America.
In a very real way I was living the “if you could do anything with your life” thing, really living it.
But here’s what’s weird. Even so, I was often nagged by an existential questioning of it all, even as I wandered from city to city and chapter to chapter, and though I felt compelled every morning by a force almost outside myself to move, to work, through everything there was that nagging and inescapable why? what’s the point?
Which is fine to ask when you’re in a dead-end job or a dead-end life or creatively stifled or writer’s blocked. But when you’re doing exactly what you want to do? WTF?
The nagging was there, too, when I decided to blog about my Peace Corps experience. I’d read dozens of blogs and knew I wouldn’t have anything unique to say, not really, that I would mostly be saying the same things that had already been said a thousand different ways on a thousand previous blogs. What would my handful of readers gain from it? What would I gain from it? If a blog fell in a Filipino forest and even if people were around to hear it, would it make a noise?
* * *
When you want to join the Peace Corps, there’s one question you’re asked again and again — during the interview, when you write your aspiration statement, by friends and family, and of course, in moments of personal reflection: Why? Why are you doing it?
It’s a good question. On one level, everyone serves for the same reason: to make the world a better place. But when you read a dozen Peace Corps blogs, you start seeing other levels beneath: there’s the blond girl whose entire photoblog reads like a travel journal; the volunteer who returns time and again to placing her mixed-race heritage in a country crammed with ethnic stereotypes; the recent college grad who bemoans the fact that the obscure dialect he’s learned, Visayan, won’t much polish his post PC resume; the thirty-something who writes about waiting out the tough job market; the volunteer who meticulously documents the wretched conditions in his community as if trying to atone for or expunge the guilt of his bourgeois birth.
If I’m honest with myself, it is all of these things–do-goodism surely, but also escapism, and resume-buildingism, and self-realizationism and guilt-expungementism. And yet, on another level, it is none of that. Because at the deepest level, for me, the reason I’m doing the Peace Corps is the same underlying reason that compelled me to travel the country, to write a novel, to go, to do. It is inexplicable, it is irrational, it cannot answer the why why why because it is the drive of abstract dissatisfaction.
But it is a divine dissatisfaction. And it keeps me marching and it makes me more alive.