Rain clouds loomed outside as I sat across from my spiritual advisor, Br. Robert, in the simple room. “You have to own it,” he said. “You’re an artist. Own it.”
He talked about his early years as a friar. The other friars didn’t think much of his penchant for painting, forcing Br. Robert to sacrifice his own time, money, and space for it. At one point, he even tried to suppress the urge because it interfered so much with his religious duties. Just as Thomas Merton complained about his “double” as a writer pestering him during his early years with the Trappists, Br. Robert struggled with the artist fighting for expression from within.
When he left the friars–and the Catholic Church for a time–Brother Robert lived on Skid Row, trying to make his work as an artist. He found a deep, resonant calling. Surviving on rice and beans–tuna fish, when he could afford it–he scraped by, but his art taught him his vows better than his stint with the friars. Poverty. Obedience. Chastity. The words clarified as the years wore on.
For Br. Robert, devotion to art proved a devotion to God.
“Own it,” he had said. The words made sense as he said them, but didn’t resonate. As the years has pass, the words Br. Robert and I shared deepen and clarify, like his vows. Tempered and stretched by experience, his wisdom grows. I understand him now.
Everyone has an addiction, something that brings meaning to their lives. The existentialists captured the notion with the idea of “authenticity”: actions that define us, that literally craft and skulpt an essence out of mere being.
Neglecting that addiction makes us irritable, bitter, and unfulfilled. We become shadows devoid of depth, like the outline of a cooky cutter. Others define us, and we loose that authenticity.
Some are addicted to learning. Some to helping. Some to friendships. These addictions define lives. If you don’t like the word addiction, then use thirst or need, a voracious, existential call to be who we’re called to be. My parents have always been advocates, for example; they both work in health care and human services.
We have to “Own it,” as Br. Robert would say.
I’m addicted to learning and creating. It makes such sense now, looking back over the years. I’ve always been a scientist and an artist. I drew and painted constantly when I was a child, or collected rocks and bugs, trying to identify them with field guides.
In middle school, I started piano. I loved playing, but my true passion was improvisation and composing–creating. Music came to me from the yawning depths of my soul to speak in a language I hardly knew, but it’s stumbling melody needed voice.
In middle school I also started reading philosophy, realizing the same depth I found within reflected the world outside. There was so much to learn, so many perspectives to find.
In eighth grade I wrote my first poem. Since then, the call of the world has kept me at the page.
If I don’t write, I get irritable and heavy. I hear the music of the world, see a spray of words melded to the morning light, and I long to capture them. I long to build realities from fantasies by tracing them in prose and punctuation. Writing is my redemption.
And philosophy feeds that redemption. It keeps me reflecting and exploring. As French writer Albert Camus said, “A novel is never anything but a philosophy expressed in images.”
Besides Brother Robert, another memory spurs me on. High school graduation, I walked on stage to see Mr. Benware, my English teacher, holding out a creative writing reward. We started to shake hands, then he went for a hug and whispered in my ear, “Use it.”
Those words ring each time I question my purpose.
“Own it.” and “Use it.” To me, they comprise a simple, almost cliche line of advice: find your passions and share your passions.
For Gustav Mahler, composing was more than an occupation or hobby. It was his heartbeat. As years add up, writing and learning become my heartbeat. I measure my days by them, loving the hardship and rewards of the craft and the quest.
They are my addictions and my outline. One day perhaps I can sit across from another confused freshman on some rainy day and say, “Own it,” or whisper in the ear of a hopeful graduate, “Use it.” For me, I know of no higher calling.