Years ago I read a book by Julia Cameron, and at the end of each chapter the author presented the reader with a question and outlined an exercise. At the end of one chapter, the author posed a question to the reader: Who would you take to war with you? This inquiry demands deep reflection.
Cameron was engaging the reader with a thought-provoking question in which the reader needed to seriously consider who would not only be trustworthy, but deeply mature, dependable, and capable under the most extreme circumstances. A friend I spoke to this morning is one of those “take to war” people.
Alone and six months pregnant, she moved to New York after college. As strong and as independent as I am, I could never have chosen that path. In my early twenties I was one-dimensional and closer to selfish than I’d care to even own out loud. My friend, who has been painting since she was in sixth grade, trusted with her heart and soul that New York was the place for her to make it as an artist.
She landed a job as a receptionist for a major record label and later moved up to being an executive assistant to a VP. I think they were calling them “secretaries” back then. Since I’ve known her, I cannot recall her ever expressing even a scintilla of doubt, a negative attitude about life or struggle, or how hard it is to make it as an artist.
If I need a pick-me-up, she’s the first person I consider because she never, ever sees anything as “unfair.” Her advice is typically supportive, but most of all she appears to manage her life by seeing each experience as a mosaic–life reflecting art.
A few months prior to my leaving New York, she had an art exhibit. Beautiful, imaginative, prolific artistry which I couldn’t afford was strategically hung or leaned against exposed-brick walls; each portraying a story about New York. She spent months preparing for the show. Sipping wine and listening to Marvin Gaye music, the mood in the gallery was generously upbeat. When people left they were Ooh-and-Aahing.
Irrespective of the repeated compliments and overflow of people, not one observer purchased my friend’s work. Her boyfriend of 15 years would lead people off the bustling sidewalks and no one turned him down. Yet not one painting was sold. Amazingly, my friend laughed and chatted with people mingling and silently judging her tireless efforts. I sensed she was genuinely optimistic and happy to have her work displayed in a Lower Manhattan gallery.
While my friend is first and foremost an artist, and she has persistently followed what she believes to be her signature expression of love, she has earned her livelihood from work that doesn’t fulfill her. She and her actor-boyfriend can barely make their $3,700 rent each month.
When I resided in New York, they were living on the Upper Westside. A truly charming walk-up with large windows and room for my friend to paint. But they had to give up a two-bedroom my friend had been living in since 1989. Now, they live an hour outside of Manhattan because the city is no longer remotely affordable to the average person.
This friend has been through so much. From losing her once-reasonably priced Manhattan pied-à-terre, to being laid off and unemployed for over two years at the height of the downturn. To make matters worse, she began to face one medical issue after another. Prescription costs were beyond what she could afford. Her actor boyfriend has had bit parts but not enough to sustain the lifestyle they once had. He’s been working as an actor for decades, but acting jobs are no longer reliable.
His attempts to get 9-5 work that offers a livable wage and benefits has become utterly futile. He’s in his late 40s; no employer is interested in him because he’s spent far too much time working as an actor. He does part-time work as a barista at a swanky coffee bar in TriBeCa, and the occasional “mid-life” character roles. It’s not enough to make ends meet.
There’s something to be said about believing in our artistic expressions, which we trust will someday earn our keep. I am always in awe of someone like my friend, and her boyfriend. It takes sincere faith to walk in the dark. The cost of living is amazingly high now, and earning a living through creative expression has always been difficult to achieve. But neither has ever stopped, or complained about it. Not in front of me.
My friend, and her boyfriend, started out decades ago trusting the process. Even when outside influences taunted them, they persevered. An artist’s rite of passage is to struggle, and struggle and sacrifice go hand-in-hand for the creative. Although one shouldn’t have to struggle a lifetime, and sacrifice, in time, is supposed to bear fruit. All religious and spiritual texts hint at this, if not proclaim it outright.
I would have seen a lifetime of struggle as unfair years ago, but it’s the way things are now. What is left for someone like my friend and her boyfriend but to trust the unseen, the quiet possibility, the assiduous hopefully. What was once their conviction has now become their fingers crossed.