definition; 1. The promise(s) we make to ourselves in order to get out of bed and do the work that gives our lives meaning.
The Story of Rod and Sarah
I met Roderick Slater at the perfect time. I was a high school senior, boarding at The Maine School for Science and Mathematics, a public magnet school at the northernmost point of the state. I had hitchhiked 150 miles south to Waterville, where my family lived, with a truck driver named “Sweetback.” He dropped me off at the Bare Bones Cafe where my friends gathered to drink endless cups of cheap coffee and smoke cigarettes.
Rod was at one of the tables talking to friends of mine. I had shown up to do a reading of some of my new poems. Angry, angsty, teenager poems. The kind you expect from a kid who hitchhikes and smokes cigarettes.
After the reading, Rod asked me who I thought the greatest American poet of the twentieth century was. I told him that my favorite poet was Alan Ginsburg. He said, “I didn't ask who your favorite poet was. I asked you who the best poet was.”
I still have the pages of the journal I took notes in that evening. He introduced me to T.S Elliot, James Joyce, Albert Camus (I spelled his name “Kamu” in my journal), Plato, Marcel Proust., Fellini and Jackson Pollock and Sartre and Samuel Beckett. It was a crash course in 20th century thought, Modern Art and the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks. It was the baptism into waters I have spent the rest of my life exploring.
That summer, after my high school graduation I moved into the large apartment where six working artists, including Rod, lived and worked. Rod and I stayed up almost every night at the kitchen table talking about art and philosophy and my values and what I wanted my life to be like. We talked until the sun came up and the traffic light outside stopped blinking red and starting its normal sequencing of red, green and yellow. We talked until everyone else woke up.
I left in the fall for the University of Chicago where I changed my major from Pre-Law to Philosophy and Literature.
After 3 weeks I took a leave of absence from the University and moved to New York City. I wanted to become a writer. I wanted to be around writers. I wanted to have experiences that would give me something to write about. But when I left school, I made a promise to myself: I would deeply commit to learning about every field of knowledge that interested me, from the most excellent teachers I could find, always, for the rest of my life. I wanted to live an extraordinary life, a life as free from the mundane as possible. And if that didn't go well, I would go back to college.
It has been 16 years since I made that first promise. It took me thru an amazing decade in New York, through travels all over the country. It has taken me to most of the national parks, to a beautiful home in Montreal, to friends that are so talented and soulful that I am sometimes moved to tears of gratefulness that I know them. My promise has taken me through the western canon of literature, through museums and theaters and lectures and classrooms. I have drunk from the world like it was a fire hydrant.
Roderick and I have remained close friends over these 16 years. We moved to Virginia together in 2010 and share a studio space. If someone had told either of us that we would one day share an exhibition together, I don't know which of us would be more astounded. I never planned to become a visual artist. I never took an art class in high school. I never would have come to this, or so many other things that enrich my life, if I hadn't met Rod. You never know the scope of influence you may have on a young person when you meet them late one night at a coffee shop. He has certainly been the most important and the most influential person in my life.
He never wanted to be my teacher, like some of the best teachers I have ever known, he doesn't feel qualified to teach. He doesn't think he knows anything particular to teach. He always said, “You can't tell a person something that they don't already know.” I don't know if that is true or not, I just know that I consider him my greatest teacher, because he created an environment for me to discover latent passions in myself that I never knew were there, and he did it in a way that I almost thought I had done it entirely on my own.
“Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”
“The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in "Lonesome Dove" and had nightmares about slavery in "Beloved" and walked the streets of Dublin in "Ulysses" and made up a hundred stories in the Arabian nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I've been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language. ”
― Pat Conroy
“What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.”
― Karl A. Menninger
Promises I Made To Myself
I Promise to Remember
Write poetry, make collages, create things that will help me remember the extraordinary things I have learned and seen. To remember the mysteries and the questions that arise in life that will go unanswered for years, maybe forever. Remember the way the clouds really look, and why I loved this person and that person. Remember who I was and what I valued. Remember the stories and the people I have met. To remember where I began and all the people that have helped me become the person that I am.
2. I Promise to Hope
Cheerfulness is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate. If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success. This flies in the face of the elite view that talent is the primary requirement of a good life, but in many cases the difference between success and failure is determined by nothing more than our sense of what is possible and the energy we can muster to convince others of our due. I might be doomed not by a lack of skill, but by an absence of hope.
3. I Promise To Remember Sorrow
Since we’re creatures of infinite inner contradiction, art helps me be more whole not only by expanding my capacity for positive emotions but also by helping me to fully inhabit and metabolize the negative — and by doing so with dignity and by reminding me of the legitimate place of sorrow in a good life. Art helps me feel less alone in my suffering, to which the social expression of my private sorrows lends a kind of affirmative dignity.
4. I Promise To Learn to Know Myself
We are not transparent to ourselves. We have intuitions, suspicions, hunches, vague musings, and strangely mixed emotions, all of which resist simple definition. I have moods, but I don’t really know them. Then, from time to time, I encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something I have felt but never recognized clearly before. Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression: “what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.” In other words, a fugitive and elusive part of our own thinking, our own experience, is taken up, edited, and returned to us better than it was before, so that we feel, at last, that we know ourselves more clearly. More than that, the self-knowledge art bequeaths gives us a language for communicating that to others — something that explains why we are so particular about the kinds of art with which we surround ourselves publicly, a sort of self-packaging we all practice as much on the walls of our homes as we do on our Facebook walls and art Tumblrs. While the cynic might interpret this as mere showing off, I think it is our desire to communicate to others the subtleties of who we are and what we believe in a way that words without art, might never fully capture.
5. I Promise to Appreciate What I Have
One of my major flaws, and causes of unhappiness, is that I find it hard to take note of what is always around me. I suffer because I lose sight of the value of what is before me and yearn, often unfairly, for the imagined attraction elsewhere. Art teaches me to be more just towards myself as I endeavor to make the best of my circumstances: a job I do not always love, the imperfections of middle age, my frustrated ambitions and my attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved friends. Art does the opposite of glamorizing the unattainable; it reawakens me to the genuine merit of life as I'm forced to lead it.