Category Archives: Contribution

Good and Bad

I’m in the middle of a conversation with a friend, who is a writer, about “good” and “bad.” Good and bad what, you ask? Good and bad writing. Good and bad singing. Good and bad cooking.

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The subject caught my attention because it evokes strong feelings, but I’ve been struggling for several days now to begin exploring it in writing with any kind of coherence. It seems ridiculously complicated, which is interesting and makes me even more determined to tackle it.

Sometimes the only thing I can do is start peeling the onion and see what happens, so here goes.

“Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptors. According to Oxford Online Dictionary, good is variously defined as “to be desired or approved of,” and “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad is “of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”

It seems to me “good” and “bad” are like “success.” Either we retain our power and define them for ourselves, in spite of external pressure, expectations, criticism or judgment, or we allow others to tell us what “good” and “bad” are. In the case of creative expression, like writing, singing and cooking, it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible to please anyone.

Is that a goal of an artist, to please others? Certainly, up to a point. If I can’t interest an agent in my writing, it’s unlikely I’ll be published. If my writing is not deemed marketable, no agent will take me on.

Is marketable the same as “good?” Is popular the same as “good?”

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Emphatically, no. I’ve read bestsellers that I thought were trash. I’m absolutely certain great writing exists that will never be discovered by the world. Some of my favorite authors are heavily criticized as being poor writers.

It seems to me “good” and “bad” boil down to opinion or preference. It might be an educated opinion, a well-respected opinion, or just a I-know-nothing-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like opinion, but an opinion, even a majority opinion, is not a universal law.

Creative artists work from a mix of skills and inspiration. Some artists have the resources and access to become formally trained in the use of writing skills, musical skills or culinary skills, especially if they recognize their interest and/or aptitude for a particular artistic expression early in their lives.

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Many others, including myself, may lack the resources, access or interest in such formal education and training, or may come to their art later in life. These artists are frequently autodidacts (self-taught people) who simply practice their art, whatever it is, because they must. They may or may not be as refined and elegant as those who obtain years of education and training, but they feel a passion or obsession for artistic expression that won’t be denied.

This mix of skill and inspiration is part of what makes the whole issue of “good” and “bad” so complicated. Skill is the ability to do something well. The definition implies that someone gets to decide what doing well means. Who decides that? Am I in charge of that, as the reader, concert-goer or diner, or are the writer, singer and chef the ones who define their artistic expression as well done?

As we create art, what are we focused on? Do we want to earn a living? Are we focused on competition—do we want to be number one? Are we determined to be famous? Rich? Successful? Influential? Professional? Validated? Perhaps, on the other hand, we have no expectation of living by our art, but artistic expression is a private joy, a sacred healing, an exercise in authenticity that keeps us rooted and grounded. Art is our prayer, our act of gratitude and hope, an expression of love for those around us, our love letter to life.

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As we consume art (read, listen, eat), what are we focused on? Perhaps we are collectors who are intent on investment and monetary value. Perhaps we love art because it inspires us; opens our hearts, minds and imaginations; or helps us manage our feelings. Maybe we’re avid readers, lovers of music, or lovers of fine cuisine. We may think of ourselves as “professional” or “successful” artists and thus feel qualified to judge and compare the work of others.

Calling a piece of writing, a song or a meal “good” or “bad” strictly in terms of a demonstration of skill, however, leaves out the heart and soul of creativity. Passion, inspiration and obsession cannot be taught. We might enjoy and admire the skill underpinning a technically perfect book or song or meal, but we’re not robots. Compelling art is not made from skill alone.

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Art, at its best, breaks us open. It haunts us. It companions us. It provokes, challenges, explores, dares, admits, stuns, shocks, amuses, comforts, excites and enlarges us. “Good” and “bad” are far too unsophisticated and limited to describe the central power of creative expression. The skill of the artist might add to that power, but skill without the animating spirit of passion is merely a well-learned series of maneuvers.

What is art worth? What is the value of joy, of authenticity, of artistic expression that reflects a piece of our soul? Art, for me, is about an expression of human experience, inherently valuable, even sacred, in its truth and vulnerability. I’m not qualified to judge another’s expression of experience. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I wouldn’t dare.

In the end, I can only circle back around to my own power, my own intentions and integrity, and my own limitations. I’m not a formally trained writer. As a creator, I’m compelled to create. I know it’s part of what I’m here to do. It’s humbling and gratifying when others find value in my work, but even when I have no indication of that, I value it.

Writing provides me with a vehicle for managing feelings, deep healing, a bridge for connection, and an irresistible and fascinating personal challenge. How can I increase my skill? What can I learn? How can I become a better writer with every blog post and every page of my manuscript? How can I increase my confidence, courage and authenticity through writing? What’s the best I can contribute?

I don’t frame my creative work as “good” or “bad.” I do think about how to make it better. To that end, I gladly solicit and receive feedback from others, and several people in my life have made huge contributions to my skill, but at the end of the day I consider my own opinion of its value first, and I take neither praise nor criticism personally.

To create art is to be fully present. A piece of art is an invitation to be intimate with the artist and ourselves, an invitation to increase our empathy, respect and compassion, to reach out and clasp the experience of another human being.

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I’ve written before about the cultural pressure to make ourselves small in a myriad of ways. How many natural artists (every child) have been criticized, shamed, derided or otherwise amputated from their artistic expression, particularly if it’s in any way sensual? How many people walk around with soul hunger to create poetry; to dance, to make music and sing songs; to be artists, but deny themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough? How many people have made a creative offering or expression and been rejected, mocked or dismissed?

I believe if we want a better, healthier culture, those who want to play with words must play with words, those who want to play with paint must play with paint, every shower must have a singer, every piece of music a dancer, and every instrument an explorer.

Skill matters, depending on the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. I suppose we can describe our perceptions of skills as “good” or “bad,” although I think we could come up with less subjective standards of measurement and recognize skill level as only a part of artistic expression.

Skill matters, but heart and soul matter more.

Making art. My daily crime.

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Not So Perfect

May was a tough month. I had a heavy work schedule and a certification and training class over 2 subsequent weekends that entailed classroom work as well as long, cold hours in a YMCA pool. My schedule left me with little time to write and no time to relax and catch up to myself.

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I successfully passed the class and am now recertified to teach Red Cross swimming lessons, and I earned a couple of very helpful paychecks, but I’m exhausted and dissatisfied because I haven’t been writing much.

Work is an excellent distraction from my life. It always has been. I like to work. I like having concrete and specific expectations in a work setting. I like making a contribution to others. I like the social aspect of work, and I love being part of a team.

I also like the paychecks.

I could increase my hours to full time and enjoy the benefits and increased income. I could continue adding to my education and certifications and take on teaching more classes and aquatic programs. I’d enjoy it and I’m confident I’d do well.

I tell myself that’s what a normal, responsible, adult person would do.

I tell myself I should be grateful for work opportunities and take full advantage of them.

I tell myself I need the money.

But all the while there’s a voice in my head saying, “But what about writing?”

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What about the blog, the books, that query letter I need to write and that submission process I promised myself I would tackle this year? What about that activity that guarantees no income, demands all my passion and creativity, requires long stretches of quiet solitude and combines my greatest joy with my most vivid hopes and fears?

Oh. That.

It’s time to fish or cut bait, shit or get off the pot. It’s time to reassess my time, energy and priorities and make conscious choices. It’s time for recommitment.

All my life I’ve worn efficiency and effectiveness like a suit of armor. People remark on my poise, my strength, my confidence and competence. All my life I’ve felt like a fraud and an imposter.

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I’m not motivated by the desire to compete or win applause. All I’m trying to do is stay safe. I hide my vulnerability behind my ability to be organized and willingness to take on responsibility.

A job is something I can do well and the world calls me successful.

A writer is something I am, and I must define my own success.

A job is a description, a list of competencies met and skills demonstrated, a time card, a schedule, policies and procedures.

Writing is intuitive, illogical, timeless, messy, infuriating, captivating and uncertain. It’s risky and vulnerable.

My job requires professionalism.

Writing requires absolute authenticity, sloppy, smelly and sticky.

I master a job.

Writing masters me.

I’d like to make an easy black-and-white decision here—live like a normal working person or find an old cabin in the woods and do nothing but write, but that’s ridiculous. Life consists of many threads woven together: Family, friends, home, our own self-care, community and work.

I can work and write too. I can’t take advantage of every opportunity at work, have a perfectly organized private life and be a perfect friend, family member and partner, all the while crouching behind my projections of competence, control and strength, and step into my full power as a writer.

Perfectionism will smother my life if I allow it to.

I may need to settle for being good enough, or even (God help us) average at work, at home and in my relationships. Maybe I don’t need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way, whether at work or in the course of daily life. Maybe staying safe is not such a life-or-death matter as I’ve always thought.

In the midst of all this rumination, Memorial Day weekend arrived. Saturday was the day we cleared out my storage unit after it flooded over the winter. We recruited some generous friends with a truck and trailer and made a date. At breakfast I wrote a short list of what to take. Then, instead of loading up the car, checking the list several times and getting ready hours in advance, I sat down and wrote a query letter and subscribed to an online site for locating publishers and agents who are currently accepting submissions.

Delighted and satisfied with my morning, my partner and I got in the car at the appointed time and headed to the storage facility.

I forgot to take the key to the padlock on the unit door. I also forgot the broom and the tape measure. I hadn’t taken time to check my list as we left.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

I left my partner there to wait for our friends and came back home.

For the first five minutes of the 20-minute drive I berated myself. Wasting gas, mileage and time. Worse—wasting my friends’ time! Rude, tardy, irresponsible, disorganized, incompetent …

Wait, I said to myself, hang on.

Isn’t this the choice I made, to settle for being less perfect in favor of writing? I failed to be properly organized in order to empty the storage unit, but I wrote a query letter, a project that’s been pending for seven months!

I had to smile at myself.

I slowed down and started enjoying the spring day. I stopped yelling at myself. I had been imperfect in front of God and everybody. My cover was blown and I felt uncomfortably exposed. I didn’t like it.

(My partner, as he reads this for the first time, informs me nobody else noticed or cared.)

So be it. The writing requires my unconditional best. The rest of my life can have whatever is left.

Normal, perfectionism and maybe even safety are overrated.

We got the storage unit emptied out and swept.

Then I came home and wrote this post.

My daily crime.

(See poem below)

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“Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.”

Louise Erdich.

The Kindness of Strangers

We woke to a snowstorm this morning in central Maine. I could hardly wait to get out in it and walk. It was snowing hard and accumulating fast, coming down in heavy, wet flakes. I headed to work midmorning, maneuvering out of the driveway with some difficulty. The ground was already well saturated before this storm.

Getting out of the driveway is the hardest part of winter driving here. I’ve been amazed at how well the roads are taken care of in Maine, much better than the rural roads and streets in Colorado. Still, winter driving is winter driving, and I gave myself plenty of time.

I quickly discovered the paved road was every bit as treacherous and without traction as the driveway. There was a heavy coating of slush and no sign of sanding or plowing. If I went over 30 miles an hour I lost traction and I almost couldn’t climb the steepest hill on the way into town. I turned on my audiobook, sipped my travel mug of tea, and settled down for a slow and careful commute, wondering why the road crews seemed to be ignoring the dangerous conditions.

I started down a gently sloping hill with a shallow curve. One minute I was driving and the next I was floating. I was alone on the road. Nothing happened. I hadn’t accelerated or braked or jerked the wheel. I just started slipping across a thin layer of slush between the tires and the pavement, and I knew I wasn’t going to make the curve. I kept my feet off the pedals and tried to steer into the skid, but the tires might as well have been glass slippers, for all the traction they had.

I was very lucky. The side of the road was thickly edged with woody shrubs like alder and willow. I didn’t hit a pole, tree or fence, and I wasn’t going fast. I also didn’t land in water, a real danger here in Maine. I recognized the weightless feeling in the pit of my stomach and knew I was helpless, a victim of momentum. All I could do was sit tight and wait for the car to stop. I wasn’t at all scared. I had a seatbelt on and I was only coasting.

I’m going to be late for work, I thought, resigned.

The brush and bushes caught me neatly. I turned off the audiobook and engine, turned on the hazard lights, gathered up my keys, wallet and travel mug of tea — not a drop had spilled — and set out for the nearest house.

I was greeted by the baying of several dogs, the alarm calls of a pair of geese and a woman about my own age with very blue eyes. I explained, said I didn’t have a cell phone, and asked if I could call for help.

She was extremely kind. The dogs were contained somewhere while I waited. The geese eyed me balefully. When I stepped inside, the house was warm and a stove glowing. It was a typical farmhouse kitchen, cluttered, friendly, comfortable, filled with plants. She handed me her cell phone, introduced herself as Sarah, and asked if I was hurt. I reassured her I was perfectly unharmed, called my partner and called work. I was about to call AAA when she offered to pull me out with her tractor.

I dithered. I have a horror of being a burden or needing help. Why should this woman leave her cozy kitchen and go out into the snow and slush to pull a stranger out of the ditch? She told me to stop apologizing and pointed out that AAA would likely take a long time to respond, given the local conditions. We both wore heavy mud/snow/rain boots. She flung on an old yellow slicker and fired up the tractor.

The tractor couldn’t get any traction, either. It churned up mounds of mud and grass, but the chain wasn’t long enough to allow it to pull from the pavement, and she came close to sliding sideways into the ditch, just as I had done.

At this point we’d both been lying on the slushy, muddy ground hooking up chains, the snow was coming down in wet clots, and the narrow rural road we were on was extremely hazardous. Sarah took the tractor back and returned with “Tank.” Tank is an old-fashioned heavy farm truck, painted in camo and looking indestructible.

Tank couldn’t pull me out, either.

During all this, everyone who went by stopped to ask if we needed help.

The snow turned to heavy rain.

We went back to the house and I called AAA.

I wanted to wait for the tow truck in the car, but Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. We could see the car from her kitchen window. We were both wet and muddy to the skin. We sat at the kitchen table and talked about our sons (her two and my two) and what we’d done with our lives so far. Every car that went by mine either slowed or stopped. We were so worried that someone else would go off the road or my mishap would cause another accident, we put a note on the car window saying Nobody hurt. Waiting for tow truck.

About an hour later a big tow truck pulled up. I thanked Sarah from the bottom of my heart, put my sodden coat back on and went out into the pouring rain. There were two young guys in the truck. They considered the problem, walking around the car in their heavy boots and the bulky waterproof gear all the working men seem to wear here. They decided the only way to get me out was to pull me sideways back onto the road. I was shivering by that time. I got in the driver’s seat, rolled down the window (I could hardly have been wetter), and prepared to follow directions.

While they were working the road was effectively blocked. A big pickup truck came along, pulled into the center of the road behind the tow truck, and turned on his hazards.

They pulled this way and that. I went from neutral to park and back again. I braked when they told me to. The rain ran down my face and neck and under my coat and other clothing. Branches scraped across the car. The winch whined. Mud and slush churned. A few vehicles waited patiently. We finally got two tires on the road. They got behind me and told me to accelerate nice and slow. I did so, they pushed, and the tires found the pavement again.

I thanked them wholeheartedly. I waved to the kind and patient human being who blocked traffic and kept us all safe.

This morning in Maine there have been many, many accidents, including a flipped-over school bus, snowplows off the road, jackknifed trucks and people like me sliding into ditches, power poles and other cars. There have been cancellations, delays and detours. We are warned of flooding. This afternoon and tonight we expect freezing rain. The storm is not over, but my adventures for the day are. I crept back home three hours after I left it, shivering, wet and exhausted, and promptly got stuck in the driveway.

How do we thank the strangers who brush against our lives and lend a helping hand? I’ve never known. A simple thank you seems so wholly inadequate. Still, what else can I say? What about all those anonymous strangers who help in ways we never know about, or come and go so quickly we don’t even see their faces? As an old first responder, I know how essential traffic control is, but I don’t know if the driver who shielded us and stopped traffic was a man or woman. I suspect everyone’s plans were disrupted this morning, but people slowed and stopped to make sure the driver of the car in the ditch was not injured or needing help. Treacherous roads, blinding snow and then rain, a dark November day, and ordinary men and women willing to assist in spite of it, willing to leave their warm firesides and kitchens, willing to climb out of their dry, cozy vehicles, willing to do what they could for a stranger.

These are the darkest times I’ve seen in America in my lifetime, but this morning my faith in humanity was renewed. A series of strangers helped me when I was in need, and because of them I’m back home, safe, dry and warm. I’m grateful. I also know that all over the world people are practicing small acts of kindness all the time, ordinary people going about their business in neighborhoods, communities and at work. This post is for them.

Thank you for checking to make sure a stranded driver is okay. Thank you for answering a stranger’s knock at your door. Thank you for offering a cell phone or other means of communication to someone who is stuck without the ability to call for help. Thank you for helping direct or block traffic so further accidents don’t occur. Thank you for being patient when an accident holds you up. Thank you to all those first responders, tow truck drivers, utility company workers and the other hundreds of thousands who are there with tow chains, chainsaws, shovels and tractors when the unexpected happens. You might be doing your job, but thank you anyway for your smiles, your kindness, your expertise, your willingness to contribute, your difficult and often risky work, and your humanity.

My hope lies in all of us who do what we can in our little corner of the world. The simple, humble kindness of strangers may, in the end, save us.

Needing the kindness of strangers. My daily crime.

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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