Of making many books there is no end

The beginning

“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A couple of Friday mornings ago I was putting together a bowl of cereal when the radio mentioned it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday. A theologian, he had spoken out against the Nazi regime, was offered a cushy professorship asylum in New York, got there, realized he was being a coward, went back to Germany, continued to speak out against the Nazis, and was executed two weeks before Hitler’s suicide, 23 days before Germany surrendered. And then, this quotation. Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.

I checked my phone, I’d gotten a text message. From Justin: No word from either Lopez brother about the key to the storage unit. This storage unit in Oakland has held a trove of my artwork since September 2008, since I fled Los Angeles and my identity in the art world, since I fled a dynamic of abuse that had developed between Ernie and me. I’d been in text-message limbo with Justin, our only middleman left, about getting my artwork back, but nothing was working out. Ernie’s brother had the key down south, someone was going to mail it, nobody mailed it, Ernie’s not answering his phone, Justin is too busy himself. I knew I needed these paintings back—they were my identity, essentially; the metaphor of my artwork (my lifeblood) still being held in Ernie’s storage was not lost on me by any means—but I sort of imagined that they’d show up eventually, Justin could bring them down to me, I wouldn’t have to go to any sites of pain or deal with Ernie myself in any way, it could be as tidy as a special delivery to my doorstep. It could all remain at a distance.

The weight of loss, the weight of silence, The Contradiction, has been growing like a tidal wave… pretty much since I disappeared from the life that I had built, since I fled. Before, I had structured my entire identity around being An Artist. And my entire identity as An Artist included Ernie: I met him at my first art show when I was 17 (he was 25), when he was the first person to buy my artwork. From that point we developed a tense, at arm’s length, off-and-on relationship that centered around my artistic ambitions. I would do anything to become one of the Names that I read in the art books. I fell into a deep obsession, I had to make it happen, this mattered more than anything. He “got” this and fostered it as my purpose, with a seductive encouragement I had never felt before. A pushing of boundaries, a cerebral transgression, the breaking-open of art-as-idea.

I turned eighteen, went away to college, too pricy, didn’t fit, met Nicolas, came back to Monterey one semester later with the goal of transferring to art school at UCLA, where the Names were not just Names but actually belonged to real people who could someday know my name back. Several weeks later, Ernie’s mom was murdered. Southern California, estrangement, drugs and shady boyfriends and domestic violence. After this, Ernie would let himself into my room while I was sleeping and get into my bed. The bizarre power dynamic between us had already been set in place (later I will write about the anonymous emails he wrote me while I was at college), but for some reason this event stands out the most, some kind of turning point. I would coldly flip over, try to ignore him, I was trying to sleep, he was holding my body. No matter what I did, his heavy presence would be there in my bed, I didn’t know how to respond to his grief.

This sounds weird, but despite how much I have changed, despite the fact that I am now married to Nicolas, despite how much I have grown and taken myself apart and reassembled myself according to my own terms, until only a few weeks ago I would find myself lying in bed, feeling like he was still there under the covers. I knew it wasn’t him, it was some metaphor for him, like my artwork in his storage unit, a more-than-metaphor that extended into real space. It wasn’t just him, it was the entire art world, it was the entire identity I had created and then seen crumble, built up within a System where if your Name never made it onto the pages of books, onto the glossy pages of a magazine, if you hadn’t hit certain milestones or been recognized by the right people or in the right forum, you did not matter. You may as well not exist. And at night, in bed, I would lay there silent, and all of this would condense there alongside me, pressing its weight against me.

So a Friday morning, that quote: “Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” Whatever I am doing isn’t working, I realize. I could no longer go on with that presence in my bed at night. Even after I had gotten out from under it, I had left the System, I had left the abuse, it could find its way there, I was still letting it have power over me, to tell me that I didn’t matter if I was outside of its line of vision. I spent almost two years thinking about this, thinking about how to express this as someone who makes things; I tried to write it into a story but it was too heavy-handed, I am not a victim, he is not a monster. I tried to make it into a book but then it becomes another tool, tool of a book-deal world of success and failure where certain voices get heard over the involuntary silence of countless others. I tried to make it into “Art,” but how is that not playing the game, as if I never left? How can I play the game while I am trying to speak out about the game itself, to speak out against its mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion? Am I playing the game now by saying anything at all?

This is it: The Contradiction. This is what crawls into my bed, this is what I wrestle with every single time I sit down to try to make anything. I have thought and thought and thought, and it has not gone away. If anything, it has taken control of me completely. I have lost my agency.

And so, I realize, I have to confront it head-on. Now that I am back in California I can’t convince myself that it’s far away. I have to deal with it myself. I have to trust myself to enter back into the dynamic for the right reasons. So I find him on Facebook (the only way, these days?) and send a message, “Please call me, same number.” 90 seconds later, my phone rings. I tell him that I need my paintings back. Please get the key. I am tired of carrying this burden around. Do you want to talk when you come up? he asks. I would be open to talking to you – I am looking for reconciliation – but going into it I’d have to know that you wouldn’t ask anything of me, because I’ve already given you enough and had enough taken. My face is bright red. My boundaries are drawn.

The next Friday. I am coming up tomorrow, my friend Emily is driving me, he’d suggested dropping everything off at Justin’s, I could pick it up there. Justin is busy, unresponsive. So I call. I’d rather go straight to the source. I don’t want to “pick up” my artwork—I want to excavate it, to roll the rock away from the tomb. This means, we realize, that he will have to come along, to lead us to the storage unit, to unlock the door; I would see him for the first time since I fled, two years five months. You’ll have a friend there, so you won’t be able to talk? he asks. Even if we were to talk, how do I know you would listen? How do I know that this isn’t a way to reignite the toxic power-play of constant second guesses and mental strong-arming? I’ve changed, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, I am really just ready to listen. …Well then, how about now? An hour passes on the telephone, I speak words I have never uttered, I have no idea if he is hearing me, it seems he is but I can never be sure – but somehow that doesn’t matter anymore. Getting it out there is enough. Getting it out there is all I can do.

He is a person, I am a person, we share an intersecting history of brokenness. I get out of the car and ask for a glass of water. He puts his hands on my shoulders: “Let me just look at you for a second.”

Unrelenting blue as we drive home; the day shines, gorgeous and warm. Artwork takes over the floor of my apartment. I breathe, I feel full. My big yellow painting leans against the wall as a signal of an accomplishment—not a mnemonic device to trigger the loss of a life I no longer live, but a testament to the act of authoring my own recovery. I think of this picture my dad showed me when he got his first laptop; a family photo from 2006. “I got rid of someone,” he said, and I realized who, with the basic iPhoto retouching tool, he had cursorily deleted from the image:

Despite your attempts to erase it, it will never really go away.  You can never get rid of The Contradiction. As long your agency is in question,  it will still find its way into your bed at night. It will still lurk around you like a blurry ghost, haunting you, occupying your thoughts, despite your attempts to ignore it or smooth out its wrinkles internally or deny that part of your identity. It will take some of you along with it.

The best you can do is to face it directly, because it is already a part of you. Address it head-on, even if it won’t listen, even if it can kill you. Because as long as you lay there silently wracking your brain, nothing will change. Because your silence is not a way to escape the game— it is just a different way of playing it. Your silence gives the game permission to go on without you, with its power intact, with your artwork still in its storage.


Filed under: at arm's length, dude get over it Martin, reconciliation as a work of art?, The Contradiction