In October 2013, I had a pop-up show in New York, and I was there the week before, hanging it with my friend Brittany Schall, who had curated the work. We spent late nights in the gallery hanging things from the ceiling (it was a borrowed space; we were not allowed to nail in the wall), and I volunteered to run out for all the things we needed just to get a chance to walk around the city, a place I’ve loved my whole life.
On one of these trips back to the gallery, I walked into a West Village coffee shop for a quick snack and a caffeine boost, and was instantly struck by a young man sitting with a five-gallon bucket and a sign. After I read his sign, I caught his eyes, sad and somewhat troubled, and felt an electricity pass between us…. I looked away, quickly, surprised, and took my seat. Within five minutes, this lanky young man asked if he could join me, saying he felt like he should talk to me. And though ordinarily any man who wanted to join me at a coffee shop would most likely be rebuffed (what can I say, I like my privacy), I, too, felt an inexplicable pull to talk to him.
I asked him to explain his appropriated yard sign, which read, “The only difference between me and the ‘stars’ is that they sleep in a bed and I sleep on a floor.” He shared a classic New York story: He'd moved there a few weeks before with hardly any money, ran through it, and was crashing with friends and busking in the subway. He had done the thing I had always wanted to do but hadn’t, for a lot of reasons — family, relationships and fear being the top ones. I learned that his name was James Shahan, I bought one of his CDs, and then he showed me the flip side of his sign: “The power of passion: age 22 – suicidal; Age 25 – performs in a subway”.
We talked for a couple of hours, and more and more, I was struck by how much I felt like I was talking to myself when I was younger…and saying things that I really just needed to hear in that moment…and things I needed to say. We had found the thing in each other that we doubted most in ourselves: faith. And with both of us having had our faith shaken by the difficulties of making a place for ourselves in a world that has no natural place for us, it was a comfort that even across the years and in different mediums, we could share our struggles.
I can’t explain the force that drew us to talk to one another…only that it was like recognizing a member of your tribe. But whatever it was, it was clear we needed to talk to one another, that we had gifts to give and receive through conversation. And talking to him again on the phone tonight, for the first time in years (though we have stayed in touch through Facebook,) there was an ease in conversation, an understanding that we both were operating from the same place, somehow, whether through music or art.
I had woken up thinking about what I think about often these days…what the hell am I doing? How am I going to get this project done? Between the millions of deadlines, classes, gigs and side jobs, how can I keep going? And what on earth am I going to write the blog about this week, another week with no progress (though Christmas festivities at least alleviate my guilt over that one). And I also woke up to a message from James in my inbox. A message that expressed his thoughts about giving up, something that had been on my mind lately a lot: giving up. How could I? How could I not? How could I keep going? It was clear we needed to talk to one another again, and texted each other a time when we were both available.
As we talked on the phone for over an hour, I listened to his struggles to keep a roof over his head, now on the opposite coast in expensive L.A., and shared my struggles in Denver. He told me about the hard work and expense of birthing his amazing new album, NuBlue, an incredible and well-made concept album that has left him financially and emotionally depleted. I listened to him talk about the crossroads he was at, trying to decide where to be, whether to continue, what to do. And insofar as a mirror could talk, I heard in his struggle my own: His feelings of defeat and wanting to give up were my own, just as when we first talked at that West Village cafe. In finding the things to say to help him with his struggle, I was hearing myself say the things I needed to hear as well.
But he also talked of faith versus delusion…which is it that causes us to continue to drag our Sisyphean disciplines uphill? How do we as artists measure our success in a world that only grants financial success as a measure? And if winning at capitalism is the main determination of artistic success, how do we know when it’s time to give up, or find satisfaction in something else? Is it faith or delusion that causes me to continue building the tiny house in the times I feel like giving up? (Or is it simply Victoria Salvador, who won’t let me give up, something I have been thankful for many times?)
The kind of focus necessary to sustain a career in the arts, or even build a house, are similarly impossible to achieve while trying to keep a roof over your head in Denver or L.A. They are incompatible tasks, requiring you to give all of yourself to multiple “jobs” with little left over. And yet…what else do we do? Do we acknowledge that the arts are only for the wealthy to pursue, and give up for a life in the cubicle by day and in front of the television by night while locking up all of our passion and desire in a deep vault in our hearts? Or do we try to make our peace with forced roles as “creative entrepreneurs” juggling a million hats while we work on surviving as well? I encouraged him on his Facebook wall: “Our culture calls 'money' success. But money, though necessary, will never fill your soul. Money will never lose you in that flow state, creating until dawn, money will never light your mind on fire, money will never help you feel connected to the rhythms of the music. It's necessary, because of the world we live in, but it is not life. Music is life. Art is life. You need both But when what you need is two birds, why would you drop the one in the hand so you could maybe catch the one in the bush? Sometimes we have to compromise. Sometimes we have to take breaks. Sometimes it feels like the world will kill us, because it has no place for us. But we make our place, every day. You know: it's not easy. But it's like breathing.“
We also discussed how things look from outside, in Facebook-land, in a world where we try to think positive and put our best foot forward. I excitedly downloaded his album and listened to it every day for a week, examining the intricacies of his lyrics and nodding my head at pain and politics as much as to the rhythms of his flow. James is wise beyond his years, and earnest about his craft. He started rapping at the age of seven and has the smooth delivery of Childish Gambino and the wordplay of Kanye without the bluster or braggadocio of either. His music touches on emotion and depth that isn’t often found in rap, by turns vulnerable and angry, soft and hard.
But little did I know how hard it had been on the other side for him, what he was struggling with now. I, too, have written, week after week, about the tiny house while struggling with serious depression, intense money problems, and fears about potential homelessness, most of which I’ve tried to hide behind a cheery smile. As someone who has dealt with depression my whole life, I’ve grown good at that; people want to hear positivity, and like most women, I’ve been trained to hide pain well. I could relate to both sides of James’s New York sign.
James spoke earnestly in a video on his Facebook wall to his friends, opening up about his struggle and speaking about how “there is no place in the world for us as artists.” And in that, he has echoed something I have frequently felt, especially facing the gentrification battle in Denver that has the art community reeling, after a lifetime of “making my place” only to be pushed out of it and making a new one. It’s no comfort when people say, “The world needs you,” when all evidence points to the contrary. It’s no comfort to need support and have people give encouragement.
So…why do we do this? Why do artists, against all odds, push forward to create their work? Why do I continue to push forward to change my life from the ground up, building this tiny house and getting off grid? What keeps us going?
We all have the dream of making a living at what we love, and James spoke to that, too. But even deeper…he used the word “calling," one that I have used in regards to my crazy Don Quixote mission with the Mayday Experiment. A large part of what drives me forward, of what drives many of us forward, is that we believe in the power of art to change the world. Not directly change the world – art never stopped a war, or fed a family, or stopped a natural disaster. But in looking, in listening, it changes us. The conversations it inspires, the community it brings, changes us as we change others, one person at a time. Is believing this faith or delusion?
We find the people we need to find, and tell one another the stories we need to hear. I tried my best to reassure James that I feel like giving up all the time, and that it’s natural, but I keep going because, in the face of that void of knowing what else I would do, what other identity I would inhabit, it seems as if there is nothing else to do. The ebb and flow of desire and motivation are simply part of the cycle of being an artist…the crazy idea, followed by the hard work, followed by the moment we want to give up, which is often right before the breakthrough. Famously, Kurt Cobain was evicted from his apartment the same week Nirvana finished recording Nevermind. We push ourselves to the edge at great risk, but that doesn’t mean reward isn’t imminent. Even more important: It also doesn’t mean the reward is what we thought it would be. Sometimes the reward is simply the work itself. Throughout, we find each other, hear one another’s dreams and fears, and offer support and encouragement where we can. Ultimately, our success is defined by how we feel about ourselves and our work.
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Perhaps it is hope that drives us all forward. Perhaps it is not knowing what else we will do. Perhaps it is a calling. Perhaps it is because we are fools. As James said: It’s a fine line between faith and delusion. But, really, can one exist without the other?
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.