Fresh Lettuce for Our Salad Days

When I was a university student I had a friend who walked around for an entire semester reminding all of us that we were living our salad days. As a starving student I thought he meant we were poor and hungry and could only afford to eat lettuce. Years later, having finally come to understand what he was talking about, I think about the salad days and wonder if my salad days are gone.

Our salad days are, depending on the definition one follows, either the green days of our youth when we are full of indiscretion and light on wisdom, or they are the time of our life when we are at the height of our abilities, regardless of age.

The latter definition implies that there is a point of greatest apex, a time when we maximize our potential, to be followed thereafter by a decline. Like salad greens we come in fresh, potent, and full of energy. And like salad greens we then wilt and decay. A sad prognosis for those of us still hoping to attain a certain level of sais quoi after a long struggle with our craft. So the question begs, are we engaged in a desperate race against a gradual decline prior to the close of the mortal window, or is there hope for lifelong production at a high level?

There is far more to the science of the brain than I could hope to know in making my argument here, but then I’ve always been an intuitive soul impartial to empirical evidence (that’s a joke, son). We’ve all heard that the brain is full of untapped potential, and that tapping into that potential very often requires little more than using our brain intentionally to envision the results we want. Thus, if we listen to adages that tell us we are bound to decline, and that we only have so much time to reach our potential before it’s too late, then it stands to reason that we will program our brain to follow that precise outcome. Humans are quite adept at self-fulfilling prophesies. Like we discussed last time, “will it and it is no dream” – this goes for nightmares, too.

Our “salad days” should be lifelong. I believe this is entirely possible (though not easy). Over time the energy we put into our thoughts affects things like our health, happiness, wealth, success, relationships. Our beliefs guide our expectations and our expectations manifest into results (good and bad). The bottom line is that by expecting to maintain a high level of performance, particularly in the mental arts, there should be no end to our salad days potential.

The challenge comes as we age, when it takes a bit more will to meet the demands of high-level performance. We become a little more jaded, a little more world-weary, and if we lose our passion and the will to continue strong then we may well lose all desire for the thing we formerly wanted so badly. To keep up our strength for the road ahead one might prescribe meditation as a tool for staying mentally sharp. Personally, I would also suggest the martial arts, particularly tai chi chuan (or one of the milder variations such as tai chi chih). Yoga may also help. Whatever works to bring the mind and will together to continue working at a high level. A runner doesn’t stop running the race when they get tired, and the committed lover of life shouldn’t stop living until that life comes to its eventual end.

Many of us are still hard at work despite creeping into middle age, so it’s worth noting that middle age encompasses the majority of our functional and effective lives. Old enough to have some education and accomplishments, and hopefully with the maturity to be the masters of our own lives, this period has the potential to be our most lucrative while setting us up for continued growth into “old age.” But it takes a life of dedicated focus on the good – focus on the intentional outcome of high quality.

And so this is a call to the joys of our salad days. A little bit of impishness, a sense of mischievous criminality, just like when we were first discovering life’s great taboos and the thrill of crossing a line – this is where we want to stay as creatives. Bold in the assurance that we are in, or have yet to reach, the peak of our greatest potential. To always have something more to do. And to always be doing things well. This is where to live out the decades of our lives, letting the products of our heart’s work litter the ground behind us like dragon scales in the molting season of our great and beastly imagination.

Creativity Beyond the One Thing (or, lifestyle versus hobby)

I was raised by creative parents. I don’t know if they realize this fact, nor how much it influenced my creative life. Even to this day my parents are creative. My mother is a quilter-extraordinaire. My father has done everything from stained glass and wrought iron, to photography, to knife-making. Award-winning, quality work. I’m very proud of their creative skills and grateful for the influence. I have often wished for both of them that they would have had the confidence in their craft to make it less of a hobby, and more of a lifestyle.

Living creatively means more than giving art a shot. Trying new things is important, and dabbling in creative pursuits is fulfilling in itself because the experience of learning new skills and then making something with our own hands is satisfying, even if the product isn’t exactly the quality thing we wish to make. When we dabble and fail, because as novices that’s what happens, we tend to give up and say the effort was an experiment. If we do it a few times, every now and then, we call it a hobby. Often we abandon the endeavor and move on to something else. Meanwhile, though we may harbor a little piece of creative notion about ourselves, we largely live our lives as though the arts are meant for someone else. We don’t think of ourselves as artists, we don’t act like artists, and we don’t create like artists.

Creative people have an attitude. I’ve probably said this before. And that attitude is one of defiance, and license, and of pride. For those who cannot abate this attitude the creative sensibility becomes a lifestyle. Creatives often look, talk and behave differently from “normal” people. Some of this dandyism comes from pride and ego and some of it comes from a lack of confidence that they are trying to overcome by being different. When a creative person moves from dabbling curiosity to daily living in the creative zone, their entire lifestyle becomes a resource for the creative effort. Through this evolution the true artist is manifested. In Campbell’s terms the mythology of the artist results in the real-world outcome of an artistic life. Artists create art, and there’s no stopping it once the persona is established.

A creative lifestyle is composed of many things that other lifestyles shy away from. Travel, idea and discussion, debate, creation, destruction, rebirth, change. These things take effort. They require an engaged mind and a level of energy. The will must be fully present and applied. All of creative effort is a matter of will. The work can be tedious and frustrating. Hopes can be dashed. Failure, once again, is ever-present. Few, if any, creative people who have gone on to have great success have never experienced failure. But they did not quit, because their will would not let them, nor would the calling.

Sean Penn has been credited with saying that he has written many things, and most of them haven’t gone anywhere. But by doing a lot of work he finds things that do take hold, and are successful. None of us is any different in that regard. But in order to have the energy to do all of that work, and to have a shot at that kind of result, the creative process has to be part of an entire lifestyle.

My offering today is encouragement to embrace the inner dandy. All of a person’s individual success ultimately comes down to their own effort and the will to make it happen. Theodor Herzl said “If you will it, it is no dream” (Old, New Land, 1902). The will thrives in an environment that promotes it.

So what will it be? Lifestyle or hobby? The urge to create a single story requires the will to make it happen. If one has the will to do even that much, then there is the will to create the lifestyle to support it.

Write About the Life You’ve Lived (which means getting out now and then)

I wear a small pendant on a chain around my neck. The chain is simple, metal. A series of little silver balls ending in a plan wedge-style clasp. A dog-tag chain. The pendant is metal, too, but it’s made of pewter. Round, this pendant is not a perfect circle but is, rather, rough-hewn, probably made by hand. The center of this disc displays a static compass with a two-tone star inside a thin circle with the customary N,E,S,W designator off each point. On the back, the side that rests against the skin over my breast bone, a single word is stamped into the smooth gray surface:

Seek

I believe this sums up the creative life. Most of us know by now that creative pursuits are mostly about chasing ideas, tackling the greater notion and pinning it down until the details manifest and are pushed into place by hours of study, thought, deletion and reworking. And once that project is complete we’re off to the next, restless, growing, changing . . . seeking.

So much of our work goes on inside the mind. There are galaxies inside of us that require nothing more than a good dose of consciousness balanced by the seasoning of dreams and imagination, and fed by the cosmos of our subconscious. Because of this it’s all too easy to spend our lives in stasis, content to remain shut-in, surrounded by our creature comforts while the world, what some call the “real world,” goes on around us, through us, but without us.

I acknowledge this fact as a wake up call to myself. I don’t deny that my life has been an adventure of sorts so far. I’ve done some cool things and been to some great places. By some measures my life has been spectacular. Regardless of the fact that there have been great experiences along the way, however, I don’t think now is the time to rest and count the shillings I’ve gathered from a moment’s treasure hunt. If my writing is to grow I need to continue to grow as well.

I suppose this missive is just a version of the old “write what you know” axiom. But if we are to write what we know then we must also ask ourselves what it is that we actually know, and whether what we know is something we want to write about. The question is complex because, as Flannery O’Connor purportedly said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” The depths of a mere few years of childhood grant us a lifetime of material for our work. And far be it from me to disagree with our dear Ms. O’Connor, but I highly doubt she would have advocated that we cease living and write only about our childhood (though I suspect in many ways our childhood is the only thing we really think, talk, and write about in the end).

So as I write this entry, sitting as I do on the edge of the continent with the great Pacific before me, thinking about mortality, knowledge, and the creative spark, I think it a shame that I have not done as much as I still plan to do, and I berate myself over the time-wasters I engage in while the brilliant life remains safely unopened, garishly packaged in the vivid colors of other cultures, beauties, and even a little danger.

We creatives are seekers. Let’s be reminded then that in seeking we must move the body as well as the mind in our pursuits. All of our success begins with intention, but that intention must be quickly followed by action. As with the first word which leads eventually to a full manuscript, the first step out the door leads to new enlightenment. Just now and then. Perhaps one new place per year, and if only for a few days.