There are certain things in life we learn to live with, even though we don’t want them to be that way. That it is going to be hard (lots/most of the time), is one of those things that I’m still learning to live with. And I’m still figuring out how to live with it.
I’m coming onto two years of being self-employed and building ShapeShift Arts and Kalik as full-time gigs. There are days when it all feels impossible. Days, where I literally have no idea what I’m doing, or how I’m going to keep doing it. Living in capitalism means I’m constantly wrestling with “revenue streams” and “expenses” – my expenses outweighing the revenue streams. And I feel deeply frustrated. And on some days, I quite literally think I’m ridiculous and who am I to be doing this thing that I’m doing? On other days, I continue in my critiques of this work and judge my decision to attach capital to artmaking and facilitating workshops.
I wrestle with doing this work, everyday. I wake up and ask myself questions about why, or what, or how, or for whom, or whether this is working, or should I continue, or have I gotten it all wrong. I have to reckon with the amount of privilege I walk and live with to even be able to ask these questions and struggle that I’m finding this work so “hard.” I cycle through grief, shame, guilt, frustration, anger, and disappointment. This last one, disappointment, usually lands as some kind of judgment I level at myself: I am disappointed in myself for feeling like it is “so hard,” and for wanting to run away in the face of it.
And still, I am thrown into art – not as some dream towards fame and acclaim. I am thrown into art – not as some design your future and live your dream. I am thrown into art as vocation. This thing literally calls to me. It is one of the only things that makes my life make sense. It is one of the only tools I have to make this life make sense. It calls to me, and I love it like I’ve never loved anything.
It first came to me in my childhood, as I witnessed and experienced the struggles that my parents and their parents and their parents and our people have been moving through for generations. It helped me discover the conviction that things can be different. It imbued me with the belief that I could end the particular cycles that my family have been (re)living for generations. Somehow, through art, something came alive in me and imbued me with the ridiculous and arrogant and righteous notion that I might have some ability to contribute to changing the conditions, not only of my family, but of the larger communities I belong to, and that art could be a vehicle for that change. Art came to me and presented itself as not only “a” tool, but my tool. It is my particular magic wand.
Even as someone who believes firmly and strongly in the transformative power of art to change the worlds we live in. Even as someone who finally understands that this thing calls to me. And even as I choose it, in part, because I must. There are days when this whole thing is so hard that I want to quit. I want badly to quit. I want badly to let go of this and have it let go of me.
Anyone who characterizes art as some “dream job” is either enveloped in privilege and has support beyond measure to make art; is a prodigy or some especially talented whiz; or, quite simply, is not an artist and has not tried to do this thing of art-ing. Even without attaching survival and capital to this thing…don’t fool yourselves. Art is labour. Every aspect of it is work. Even the choice to pursue this thing is labour (see: emotional, physical, psychic, spiritual labour). And perhaps for some folks it comes “easy” – but it doesn’t come easy for me or for any of the artists I work with and alongside. I do not find it easy to create. I do not find it “comes through me” like some flood gates opened and so it pours it out of me. I am not even convinced I am all that good at it, or have any remarkable talent, to speak of. And if you want to do this thing for a living… well, it means banging on doors that don’t open, and therefore doing the work of making space for yourself and the communities you work with, because the boxes that confine “Professional Art” too often don’t have space for us and aren’t interested in what we are doing.
But never mind the outer world. To do this Art, I am constantly wrestling with my inner world. And in particular, I am in daily confrontation with my limitations. My limitations in knowledge, craft, skill, experience, talent, vision, conviction, knowing enough, being informed enough, having enough to say, etc. My limitations in self-confidence, in believing in my abilities, in trusting that I can and am allowed to do this. I have gotten it wrong more times than I have landed it. I spend more time avoiding it, running from it, criticizing it, judging it, than I spend doing it. I am forever dissatisfied with it, and I am always looking for ways to fund this thing, and I spend more time worrying and struggling with the bottom line figures, than I have time to create it. And on some days, it really lands with a convincing tone: Quit, lee. Just give it up already. It’s time to consider something else.
And then, just as I’m about to give into that voice, from somewhere inside me, a different voice. Sometimes faint, even a whisper, so I have to stain to hear it: Don’t give up because it’s hard. This is one small part of the hard that is everywhere.
And when I can hear that other voice, suddenly I can breathe. I can shift the negative, spiralling thoughts. The sense of defeat. The feelings of futility. And I can breathe.
For a long time, I lamented that as a child it didn’t feel like I had a cheerleader in my corner (whether parent, sibling, or teacher/guide) who was cheering me on and keeping me on track to hone my skills. I felt very alone and very afraid of myself. And so, instead of building my skills, I spent a lot of time running from them, and when I realized in my twenties that I was still running, and there was so much I hadn’t begun to do yet, I remember looking back often and wishing that when I was younger someone saw me and told me to strive harder. That someone got in my corner when I was flailing and struggling and said, “it’s okay for it to be hard, that is part of this journey. And, you can do this, you will overcome, and you must find it inside of you to go on.”
I realize, now, I get to be that cheerleader. I get to be that person for myself.
So, on the days when everything feels impossible and it all feels harder than I can handle. I reach into myself and try to gather as much compassion as I can and urge myself:
Continue. Feel the feels. Do what you must. But don’t give up.