I had a serious wake-up call yesterday. It came in the ever-mysterious form of synchronous events lining up to show me something I needed to see. God business. As good a place to start as any: I’m a writer, among other things. Like anyone making a go of creative endeavors, I deal with constant struggles against frustration, procrastination, desperation, and utter despair.
Basic reality check: if you don’t sit down to do the thing, it’s not gonna get done. Writers write. I’ve been writing consistently for over 10 years now. It started in earnest when I decided to become an MC in 2006—I’ve written over a hundred songs since then. I wrote a short novel, which is yet waiting to be finished (needs another draft or two), and I wrote a whole memoir—took me 7 years to finish, but I finished it. People have read it, and enjoyed it.
Every year I go to ceremony—the Sun Dance they call it in english, in Lakota, Wiwanyang Wacipi, “gazing at the sun while dancing.” For me it’s a renewal ceremony; my year begins there. Before leaving I lost my job in the non-profit industrial complex. I decided I’d really rather not work for any sonuvabitch ever again, so I’m making a go of it as an independent teaching artist. When I returned from ceremony this year, more so than ever it was like beginning a new life. I knew I’d have to make some changes, acquire some serious discipline in my creative endeavors, which had been more or less on hold the entire time I was plugged into the non-profit machine.
A few days ago my housemate lent me a book, The War of Art – Break Through Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. It is the perfect book for anyone trying to accomplish anything other than showing up for a job. It’s cold and ruthless in just the way that I love; no bullshit here, just the stone truth about what it takes to make creative goals happen. I started reading it yesterday, and damn near finished it. There aren’t a whole lot of books I would actively campaign for people to read, but this one is on the short list; it’s that good.
Thinking about creative goals is like thinking about mortality. We’ve only got so much time here on earth; what are we going to give it to? One of many reasons that I hate television and video games with an unbridled passion is because they are consummate time-wasters; when I look back on all the time I spent as a youth staring at a screen or punching buttons on a controller, what I see is machines stealing away a whole chunk of my life, and leaving me nothing in return. If I’d spent that same amount of time working on my art, writing and drawing comics, my craft would by now be honed to a razor edge.
No love for regrets; the past is written. What it comes down to is this: you’re either doing the thing, or you’re not. Whatever time you give to doing or to not doing, you’re not going to get it back.
So yesterday I’m reading this book, it’s inspiring the shit out of me, and I’ve got a bug up my ass to sit down and really get some shit done. I’d already accomplished my first goal for the day—1000 words written. I decided to work on my website, which features a quote from John Taylor Gatto, teacher, school historian, anti-system curmudgeon, and one of my heroes. On a whim I went to his website (procrastination, or looking for inspiration? You decide) and discovered that he had a stroke back in 2011, and is now partially paralyzed. His wife had a stroke last year, and is now in constant pain and requires around-the-clock care. They have medical bills and expenses they can’t pay for on their own, so they have a donation link on the site; they’re now supported through the good will of people whose lives this man touched.
Gatto is the same age as my dad, both born in 1935. My dad is in pretty good health overall; he’s had a few surgeries to fix worn-out parts and doesn’t move too well these days, but otherwise he’s doing better than a lot of people who are 20 or 30 years younger. It hit me how lucky I was to still have a dad around to talk about, one who isn’t going through such tragic health concerns. But I also realized this, in follow up to what I was reading:
MY TIME IS LIMITED HERE.
Sounds cliché maybe, but it doesn’t make it any less true. There’s information–then there’s knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. When a saying is just words, it’s nothing more than information. The point at which it becomes real, through whatever magic, and turns into something that has a direct effect on how you live your life, that’s when it starts to make the transition into knowledge and beyond.
This revelation hit me particularly hard with Gatto because as I mentioned, he’s one of my heroes. I first read his book The Underground History of American Education back in the early 2000s. It was available in its entirety for free online; it’s a long book, and over the course of two or three weeks, I read the whole thing. It was so good I bought a print copy; I’ve read it from front to back at least four more times since then. It’s one of those books I continually revisit—the writing is amazing, the research exhausting, and its telling the truth about something we’re all Not Supposed to Question: compulsory schooling. This is one of those rare books that filled in the blanks for me, and showed me how it is that millions of human beings were converted into consumer drones. The truth in that book is ugly and terrifying—the story of corporate manipulation, the rule of systems, the mutilation of the human spirit inherent in compulsory schooling, conquest by machines. He lays it all out, how it works, and traces its DNA.
Reading this book changed my life, and fundamentally transformed how I look at myself, society, education, and knowledge. John Taylor Gatto changed my life. How? Because he sat down and did the thing. If he hadn’t done the thing, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Now that man, that heroic man, is bed-ridden. He will probably never do another guest lecture, possibly never write another book. He’s nearing the end of his life. Imagine getting to that point, with nothing but regret for all the things you could’ve done, could’ve created, and did not.
In the words of a russian mobster from the Daredevil show: I will not die like this.