In preparation for my retirement in January, I've been going through my books and papers and files and making a preliminary selection of what I might want to keep and take with me, and what I want to give away or (gulp) throw out. Doing this sorting a little at a time has been a way of gradually preparing myself for the departure, and has also given me the chance to look back over what has been accumulated and think about what it all adds up to.
Many years ago, when I was first teaching middle school English in Massachusetts, I had a file folder in which I put photocopies of poems that I ran across that I thought might work in class. Over the year the file grew fatter and I had to break it down into sub-files, which I organized alphabetically by author, eventually winding up with a folder for pretty much every letter of the alphabet. Today I went through files A-F and began the process of culling. Some poems have become old favorites, ones I've used over and over again in class to illustrate an idea, a way of thinking, or a strategic approach to the problem of what to do when facing a blank page. Others, having been used once, have sat in the folder for years. A lot of those wound up in the recycle bin today, and there will be more joining them as I work through the files for G-Z in the days ahead.
It's a slow process, because it's not just a matter of sorting. It involves at least skimming, and in many cases re-reading with some care, in order to determine why I kept the poem in the first place, and whether it is something that I might conceivably want to use this fall in class, or keep for my own pleasure or instruction in the future. Some of the best poems resist skimming, they draw you down onto the page and into the writer's stream of thought; they invite you in and make you want to stay. So in some ways it's been hard, a process you can't rush.
Even harder has been the need to go through my artwork, much of which I have had stored in cabinets in my office at work, and decide what I want to bring with me, and what I want to let go, either by giving it away, if there are takers, or by tossing it into the dumpster, which is what I did today with about a dozen pieces. On the one hand I really didn't want to toss them. On the other hand, there are way too many for me to take with me—several hundred at least—and what would I do with them anyway once I get to California? There isn't much of an audience for the kind of work that I do, which is mostly abstract collage of one kind or another. Of the limited number of people who do have even a passing interest in any kind of art whatsoever, there are only a very few who would even bother to look at the work that I do, and fewer who would find it interesting. Of that number, those who would go one step further and say, "Yes, that's something I would like to own" is even smaller. And of those, probably not a single soul is left who would be inclined, even if I were to gift a particular piece, to fork over the outrageous amount of money people are charging in order to get the gift framed and ready for hanging. (I recently took a small collage I had purchased from Crystal Neubauer, whose work I greatly admire, to a local frame shop, and the cost of the frame exceeded the cost of the artwork by a factor of three. I don't begrudge the expense. But I can see why others might.)
So, on the one hand, I can't take it with me and I may not be able to give it away. On the other hand, every single one of the pieces I have, even the ones that others would think are a joke, has an autobiography, an evolutionary history, a link to a time and place and a mode of thought that means something to me. Putting those pieces in the dumpster today felt like some kind of ritual of self-abnegation, the cutting of one kind of emotional bond as a rehearsal for the other bonds that will inevitably have to be severed, in January for sure, and then again in the not unforeseeable future. Part sobering, part liberating, part ominous, part joyful.
I'm not complaining. I get it. If there's one thing I've learned about art as a discipline, it's that doing the artwork is its own reward. The time I spend working on something I'm interested in working on is the best part of the whole enterprise. Yeah, I've sold some things over the last few years. And I've also given some away to friends who have taken an interest. There's no realistic scenario I can imagine where a market for my work might emerge that would allow me to sell enough to able to pay for my materials, much less my time. Perhaps once I'm retired I can build a little web site or arrange for a page on Etsy or something. But none of that really drives me. I'm not ambitious in that way. I just like making art, even if eventually it has to be thrown away. That's the way it is.
Now I know that among the (in all likelihood purely hypothetical) readers of this post, a certain percentage of you are probably gnashing your teeth and asking what used to be called, in simpler times, the $64,000 question: given the number of things that need to be done in this world, would you choose to spend your time puttering around and producing work which by your own admission you can't even give away? Why don't you find something to do that you're actually good at, something that creates value in the world, something that has the potential to do good for others?
That's a really good question. I've got some answers, which may or may not satisfy. I may tackle some of them tomorrow. We'll see.