Greatness

Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

…And some have it encouraged in them by others.

Steve Ogden

I was a terrible student. Didn’t apply myself.

I got this one test back in Chemistry (on which I had earned a D+) and scribbled in the margin was “I see greatness for you.” Initially, I assumed the teacher was mocking me. I asked her about it.

She said no, her mother had helped her grade the papers, and it was her mother who had written that.

“I dunno. She just gets feelings about people,” my teacher said. “She’s weird like that.”

But those words lifted me up during the darkest days of a misfit’s High School career. Greatness! She saw GREATNESS… for me? I clung to hope that one day I’d be better than who I was. And so I did learn to apply myself eventually. I became… well, if not exactly GREAT, at least more like she saw me. So often kids will rise to the level of your expectations.

It has occurred to me over time that the teacher’s mother had not, in fact, seen greatness or anything else for me, but had probably just scribbled some encouragement in the margins of a D+ paper precisely to lift up a weird kid.

Well, it worked.

I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve also never forgotten that it costs nothing to encourage someone who may need it now and again.

Be kind to each other out there. It’s a tough room.

Lessons from a time loop

I love Groundhog Day.

I’ve been watching it every year on FEB 2 for about 12 years now. Not unlike the gathering in Punxsutawney each winter to get a mid-season weather forecast from a rodent, I too have a ritual: dusting off that DVD and sitting down with a glass of wine to watch Phil Connors go through his time loop hell. It’s a rite of passage, and a reminder that Spring is coming. Better days are ahead.

On the surface, the movie is really just a silly bit of Hollywood rom-com fluff. It’s the tale of a man who inexplicably starts reliving the same day over and over, and whose response to this crisis carries him on his journey from selfish boor to enlightened, well-rounded humanitarian, whereupon his time loop stops and he gets to go on with his life, changed for the better. But this movie has more to it underneath. At one point, Phil goes to drown his sorrows at a bar and idly chats with a couple of the patrons.

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” he asks.

And one of the guys next to him nods, “That about sums it up for me.” And therein lies the metaphor.

Because below the surface, Groundhog Day is a meditation on life as we tend to live it. You can live with blinders on, go to work, come home, make dinner, go to sleep, get up, do it all again. It starts to feel a lot like you’re living the same day over and over again. “That about sums it up for me.” 

As Phil Connors shows throughout the movie, there are several responses you can have to this dilemma. You can deny it. Fight it. You can become depressed, even suicidal. You can focus on your own selfish aims. Or, you can use the time you have the best way you can, to better yourself and the world around you.

For the past 11 months, the coronavirus pandemic has really done a number on us all. We are living the same day over and over, maybe more now than ever before. Front line workers live an increasingly harsh and heartbreaking reality as more sick and dying pour in each day. Essential workers – who we treat as anything but essential most of the time – keep gamely trudging to work, risking themselves and their loved ones because The Work Must Be Done. Students are in less-than-ideal situations, forcing themselves to focus in the face of the global catastrophe, and those of us lucky enough to work remotely are left to balance the often conflicting demands of work, homeschooling, and family, one job bleeding into the next without ceasing. It hasn’t been a picnic for anyone, and yes, it feels a lot like Groundhog Day.

You could be forgiven for being a little envious of Phil at the end of the movie when he finally breaks his cycle, because we are still stuck in ours. The question the movie asks is how we will respond.

But the movie also offers another takeaway, beyond the predictable Hollywood Protagonist’s Epiphany to Try to Be a Better Person. Late in the movie, there’s this sweet moment where Phil has lovingly sculpted his beloved Rita’s face in snow to show her how he sees her. She is touched, and says she doesn’t know what to say.

“I do,” he answers. “Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now…” 

I think that’s it. Sure. Strive to be better. Appreciate what you have over what you want. But also, when you’re happy? You find a little scrap of happiness in all the challenges? Own it. Whatever may happen tomorrow, be happy now. At least let yourself have that.

And remember, it’s Groundhog Day. Spring is coming. Better days are ahead.

Make Something

They tell young people “You can do anything you want. The World is your Oyster.”

I think they have it backward. I think maybe *we* are the oyster and the world is the grain of sand that makes us produce the pearl of whatever we create over the course of a lifetime. For some it’s science. For some, it’s taking care of others, or policy, or what have you. For me, it’s art. My response to the world and events around me is to write stories and draw pictures to try to make sense of it all. For me, it’s art. And I’m asked frequently to give advice to artists just starting out.

My advice to young artists is simple: make something. Take it all the way to completion – finish it! You learn much more from finishing something than you do from the entire rest of the project combined. So you have to finish.

And although you may have sentimental attraction to your early work, you will come to despise it, because as you get better, you lament the flaws. But it’s OK. Make your mistakes. Put them out there for the world to see and learn from. Learn from them yourself. In this way, everyone gets better.

Don’t just talk about what you want to do. I don’t know what it means to be an artist that doesn’t create. You learn how to dance by dancing, how to write by writing, how to draw by drawing. And by the way, being an artist has nothing to do with what you do for a living. Yes, some people work in the arts. Some people don’t. But artists create all the time. Artists are always thinking, ideas are always percolating. There’s no such thing as a part-time artist.

Art happens internally first, in the soul, in the mind. It manifests externally afterward, as marks on canvas, or movements in the dancer’s body, or as words that make up a story. That artifact is a record of the artist’s decisions, a record of the artist’s point in personal artistic technical growth. But the true artistic act happens inside first.

When you embark on a creative project, people will congratulate you. They’ll make a big deal and tell you that Starting is the Hardest Part! That’s because to people who have never created anything, just beginning is a Herculean task! And they want to encourage you. You’ve started!

Sadly, starting is relatively easy. The middle of a project, that’s where it gets hard, so hard that it can make you quit. And finishing? That’s hardest of all. The end of a project, where you have to commit to your decisions and things aren’t so malleable and forgiving anymore, and all your compromises are about to be written in concrete. That’s the part that can break you.

Anyone who has released a creative project – no matter how amateurish or ill-conceived – should be commended, because just finishing is so very hard. They say no work of art is ever completed, only abandoned. Imagine how hard it is, then, to abandon them, call them done and invite the scrutiny of others. It takes bravery. It takes nerves of steel.

That’s why I don’t rag on the creations of others. I know how hard it is. I am, however, brutally harsh on myself. I would not wish that on anyone else, so my next advice is this:

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Create. And have fun.