I’ve begun writing this post over and over again in the past few weeks. I sit down at my computer, begin typing, close the document and move on. There are fragments of thoughts scattered and scribbled in notebooks, but I can’t seem to make it congeal. I am constantly thinking about what I am doing, reflecting and assessing what is going on in my life, because that influences how I move forward making my work. I’ve been thinking through all of this so much that it’s started to feel like a total mess, verging on the ramblings of a crazy lady.
So these are some collected thoughts. A selection of notes jotted, of how things have been going and what I’m looking forward to now that I’m on the downhill. I’m learning to accept that “ramblings of a crazy lady” is actually often my default mode of communication. Not to spoil this whole post, but I’ve learned quite a lot about myself since January.
The first five months of my grant were difficult. Being here has been much harder than I anticipated, especially emotionally. I expected to miss my family, to stress over money, to be overwhelmed by the differences between here and home. Which, yes, all of that has happened since week 3.
I refer to the first 2 weeks as vacation, while afterwards marked the start of “normal life”. I quickly developed a routine, falling into step much in the way I would back home. We all know that social media is a highlight reel, and most of what you didn’t see was the average life day-in and day-out. Yes, I was going to amazing locations and learning new things and shooting constantly. But there are also A LOT of days sat in front of the computer, editing and writing and emailing. Contrary to what my Instagram looked like, I was not eating fancy brunch and hiking every single day.
There was also no teaching to be done, no meetings or classes to attend, and many fewer people to bump into and chat with. My drive to be productive had to come from me and me alone, not the deadlines and anticipated check-ins I have become so accustomed to over the years. 20 years, to be exact. Until coming here, I had been in school in some capacity for TWENTY YEARS. Even though I’m in this absolutely amazing place, I have to imagine this is kind of what it feels like when people finally get out of prison. Acclimating to civilian life is rough.
For a long while there was a sense of dread that hung over me. I felt like every day was a test, and that most days I was failing. I tried to remind myself that the only person tracking my progress is me, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched (a somewhat comical anxiety to have, when so much of my life is willingly put online and asking to be watched in the first place). If I spent too much time sightseeing, I’d feel guilty that I wasn’t spending more time on my work. If I spent a ton of time editing, I felt like I wasn’t shooting enough. If I was shooting and editing a lot, I felt badly that my social media and blog presence was lagging. I just couldn’t seem to find any sort of balance, and I had very few other people, if any, to look to for guidance or as an example as to how to structure my life.
I cried a lot in the first few months of being here. I anticipated being emotional, especially about missing my family. But I have very rarely, if at all, cried over that. It was most often the frustration of my work, of the fears of not doing well or producing enough. The uncertainty of how this plays out and what it will lead to were impossible thoughts to escape.
Early on it felt like this was all or nothing. While I often talk about the benefit of experiences, how every new one builds a foundation on which you can continue to work, how important forging relationships is, etc. etc. etc. – I am very bad at following my own advice. Most days I came home completely exhausted, feeling as if I had accomplished nothing. I looked at my work, and it felt like nothing. Even though I was shooting day in and day out, none of the images made any sense to me. I was pessimistic and nihilistic and there were days where what I do felt pointless. I couldn’t help but to think that if I did not succeed in making a decent body of work, I would be a failure as a scholar. If I didn’t make a noticeable positive impact, I would be a failure as a human. It was this constant double whammy of feeling like a shit artist and even shittier environmentalist.
Part of the Fulbright application process is creating a project proposal, outlining exactly what you’ll do and when. I had this great blueprint I had created for what I would do here and how to proceed. And though I am a very organised and methodical worker, the work almost immediately changed from what I thought it would be. I started to feel differently about how I should approach this topic, and that scared me. I didn’t have a plan for these new thoughts, and without a plan, how could I proceed? Would I even be able to do everything I wanted, while trying to set out making something totally new and unanticipated? I hadn’t considered scheduling in space for “total project overhaul” in my timeline.
The craziest thing is that I EXPECTED THIS! When I talked to previous Fulbrighters and other grant recipients, or listened to speakers at orientation, almost every single one said be prepared for things to change. Be prepared for your time abroad to not go according to plan. Be flexible in your process. All of these voices were in my head, and I still felt like I was in the midst of an existential crisis.
It is difficult to have so much resting on my practice. Small bumps in the road feel like colossal failures, and I find myself easily overwhelmed by these moments. The highs are not as strong as the lowest lows. So much of what I do is also part of who I am, and it makes any sort of “work/life balance” nearly impossible. I am my own boss and make my own schedule, but am too neurotic to ever really stop myself from thinking about my work.
This was compounded by the feeling of treading water. This sense of being behind or of missing something started in my second year of grad school. Now being abroad and living this dream life experience, I still feel a shadow of doubt, the thought that I am somehow actually stagnant or worse, backsliding in life. Which I immediately then feel intense guilt for, because how many people would kill to be in my shoes?
I have unintentionally filled morning pages with the same sentiment, day after day – missing home, missing normalcy, and longing for a sense of comfortable ease. I feel strange, ugly pangs of jealousy when I see pregnancy announcements and new homeowner pictures from my classmates online. I know we’re only gone for a year, but I think of the time before leaving where our life was on hold in preparation, and the time we will spend when we return trying to reassemble the pieces of life we left behind.
As much as this is an amazing, dream, #livingmybestlife experience, it’s not always fun! Or comfortable! Or fulfilling! And if I think too long about it I again feel awful, because how many people sit at home and wish they were anywhere else in the world? Among a generation of digital nomads and van-life millennials, I think so many of us feel this disdain for our “average” lives. I guess what I’m trying to get across is that there were so, so, so many times in the first five months that I would have given ANYTHING to get on a plane back to America and back on a track (whatever that actually means).
I recognise that I am not climbing the ladder in a traditional sense, or cultivating a conventional life. I am making lateral moves, trying things and moving on to try something else that doesn’t necessarily give me a leg up. Yes, Fulbright is this amazing success and desired opportunity. For other scholars it might be what opens the door to a new job or next degree. But I’ve stopped looking at what it’s giving me in that sense, even though that’s the most common question I’ve received since accepting my scholarship - “what will you get out of this?”
I may not get anything more than a mediocre body of work out of this. I will go home, and be exactly where I was before I left. I will be living with my mom, unemployed, unknown. I won’t suddenly have gallery representation or a monograph offer or tenure. I will apply for hundreds of shows, and new grants, and jobs, and maybe get lucky again.
I do know that if I walk away from this with nothing else, I will with a greater understanding of how I operate and who I am. I did not anticipate it, but it feels like one of the most important achievements I could hope for. The work is taking shape and I feel more productive than ever (and my journal pages are much more positive). I truly think that the greatest lessons I’ve learned are not those about my work or this country, but about myself.
Yes, I am aware of just how cliché that is.
And yet I know it to be true.
I look back at school and how it took me 3 years to figure out what the hell I was doing, and then scrape it all together into a pile that was concise enough to show others.
I still feel like I’m just making a huge mess, but I’m honestly so proud of how far I’ve come in such a short time. I obviously could not have done it without all the years that came before (it’s not as if I somehow reset the clock or developed amnesia) but to me it feels like I’ve made a leap, even just in the last month or so, to a place that feels light-years beyond where I was at graduation a little over a year ao.
Part of it is accepting that there is no road map to what I am doing. Despite having lived a life of careful, measured steps - I am running forward without any sense of direction. Every decision I have to make - though still coloured by my brain trying to anticipate what other people will think or feel - is ultimately up to me and what I want. This is reflected in my daily life too, as it’s just Tyler and I moving through this time in a very selfish way. Right now I’m living a very self-centered existence, but in a way I think it’s been incredibly necessary to get myself out of a routine of focusing on what other people think of me. I make work for myself first, and cannot rely on someone else to tell me if it’s right or wrong or good or bad. I’m just doing it.
I have returned to a place of curiosity that was previously buried in my life. While I would talk about interests or matters that intrigued me, it feels thin compared to the actual motivation I currently feel in seeking out information. It’s almost as if I was always performing the role of the person I thought I should be, rather than genuinely living it. I was always terrified of letting someone down, or coming across as stupid/not intellectual enough.
The path I move down is not one that I feel pressured to explore, but one I am compelled to follow. It brings me great satisfaction, and I feel filled with a different sense of purpose. I am actually problem solving and thinking critically and really, truly learning. I feel intensity in my practice that was not there previously. Prior to coming here, and many times over the first half of my grant, I lamented that I’ve never been a great Artist. Not that I can’t make decent work, but I always felt I lacked the sense of individuality and drive that I witnessed in my peers. I always thought I was jealous of their skills, but I now realise it was mostly of their self-confidence - the ability to put themselves and anything they made out into the world without needing approval or relying on external validation.
I was so incredibly scared when I first felt the sense working without an end in sight. And though my lack of timeline is the same, I am now grateful for it. I see no expiration date to my work, no end. Just endless days to be inspired and to make things and to do good. I do not need imaginary benchmarks to keep myself accountable. Instead of being afraid of it, I keep running forward. I don’t need a finish line; I just need the will to move.
I think the reason I’ve been so hesitant to write this up and post it is because 1. It’s scary to admit when you feel like you’re failing and 2. I feel like this might come across to some as me being an ungrateful brat.
I am ultimately posting this because 1. I no longer feel like I’m failing AND I think there’s something to be taken away from the whole “beauty in the struggle” component to this and 2. Maybe it is bratty - but I also know a lot of people in my life that might see this and feel relieved in some way, the “two sides to every coin” kind of situation. A reminder to be grateful for what you have, and know someone else out there might want exactly the thing you’re complaining about. I have now lived both the ordinary and the relatively extraordinary life, and I can say with confidence that neither is inherently better than the other (although the paycheck for just making work is REALLY nice).
I hope you’re reading this and that maybe it’s a gentle reminder to be grateful for what you have, even when (especially when) it’s hard. There’s a difference between saying you’re grateful and actually feeling gratitude. Even the not-so-great is good and worthy of gratitude. Even the worst days help us move along in a better direction.
So that’s been the first half of this wild ride. It was a rough there for a while, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so thankful for this time and space to make mistakes and try new things, and for the time I have left to make the best of. I’m still looking forward to going home and seeing everyone, and hopefully someday soon getting back to a “normal” life. But I also know now that normal won’t ever be exactly the way I expected it to be. And that’s more than just okay. I have found myself on a new path, and it’s one I’m excited to run down with reckless abandon.
To close out this rambling mess of a post, I’d like to share a Mary Oliver quote that popped into my life out of nowhere last week. It seems to best sum up how I’m trying to move forward -
“Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it. “