Somewhere in my forties, raising a kid at home and trying to keep an art career afloat, I came to the sobering realization that life is 90 percent maintenance. Now this is a percentage that varies of course, depending on the size and density of the flack field one is traversing, but I would peg that amount at rarely under 85 percent.
In my parenting era I found myself hamstrung between my career goals and the obvious stay-at-home mom stuff like shopping and cooking, tackling school issues and supervising homework, setting up play dates and music lessons and, of course, chauffeuring. On top of that, I was juggling disrepair: appliances, computers, toilets and roofs. I was paying bills, dealing with banks, utilities, insurance, doctors, dogs and vets. Then there was all the personal stuff like keeping the old bod in shape, arranging social events, and navigating tricky in-law stuff. (A supreme act of maintenance, that one.) And let us not forget the never-ending demands of career: in my case fetching arcane art supplies, trekking to photo labs and stretching huge canvases.
Just when you feel like you’re clearing the clouds –the kids are in a sort of groove, the in-laws pacified, the career stuff manageable, suddenly the parents start to fall apart, and there is a whole new ball of wax to roll up the hill. No matter how much you and your sibs decide to outsource their well being, our beloved progenitors require and deserve a lot of attention. Maybe they’ve got serious afflictions; maybe they’re miles and miles away, you all know the drill. And we must not forget that one day we will be there.
At any rate, one day some years back I found myself muttering, “I’m going to go live in a teepee. Yup, I’m going to go live in a teepee.”
Back to the root of the plaint: can one find time do one’s work with that miniscule (and precious) 10 percent? Tracey Emin, an art-world "It Girl," recently and quite controversially claimed that you can’t be a mother and an artist. This statement rankled mothers worldwide, but we all sort of knew what she meant.
Perhaps this whole maintenance issue is why so many people, when they hit a certain age, have traditionally opted to ‘retire’ - hoping that their 10 percent would fatten to a heftier portion. One is at least obviating all that career stuff - the trips to the dry cleaners, the expense reports, the tedious business dinners, etc. etc. The problem is, having left that world behind, one feels adrift, disconnected, slightly unsubstantial, slightly… unreal. And that’s what the post-war generation is realizing in droves - retirement is not the answer, which is why so many of us are not doing it. And we’re starting whole new careers post 50 and 60.
Because bitch and moan or not, all that maintenance stuff? That’s life. If you were a ferret or an albatross or a jellyfish, it would be the same deal. And when you think of the fact that our 10 percent of interesting stuff is way cooler than the alternative (no percent) or even the 10 percent of a ferret, well, you just gotta say WTF: I’m here, I’m alive, and the world is fucking fabulous.
And, as a good friend reminds me, it is precisely this struggle and frustration that creates character, that provides the context, the backdrop to the real drama, the real action of our lives upon this stage. It is the apparent humdrumness of life against which those moments of heightened awareness, of sudden bliss, arise with greater brilliance. On our long trek through the quotidian, it is those drops of transcendence that rain upon our parched souls that give us the strength and the urge to continue. It is those multi-hued flashes of enlightenment that come glinting like reflections off some vast luminous moon, that startle us, that remind us why we keep on keepin’ on.
Sometimes I delve back into my old writings, to consult with my earlier self, who reminds me what it's all about.
How can I capture that bizarre and swift elation? As I turned onto tenth street walking toward sixth, that updraft (interrupting my morbid mantra about the grimness of Manhattan.)
I turn, look up, and the dense purple sky suddenly, in a silent bang, becomes a firmament. Spring leaves shift coyly before the street lamps and sting me with a green hypnotic.
Suddenly everything is drawn up with me: the skewed shadow of an old bicycle, the plastic lid to a coffee cup, a young man in a bow tie stopping to fix his shoe behind the curlicued shadow of a wrought iron trellis, posed as if behind a veil… and a fragment of conversation “But she thinks she can do it.”
Humanity gleams in these signs. Poignant, palpable, there. Each adds its tone to a long beautiful chord resonating in the column of air running up and through me.
As we move through our days, as we walk this earth, as we mutter about the tedium, the jubilation of being lies in wait, just around the corner.