I recently read a gorgeous book of Hermann Hesse’s poetry, The Seasons of the Soul, and here I’m going to interrupt myself to say seriously, go read this right now. It felt like the first time I read Rumi and wanted to quote every line to everyone I know. Treat yourself to an afternoon with one of the most beautiful minds that’s ever wrapped itself around life on earth, and I promise you will enjoy it.
In this wonderful book, the poems are grouped by themes, with short introductory essays by the translator and Hesse scholar, Ludwig Max Fischer, that include biographical details and passages from Hesse’s other writing to help elucidate the poems. These brilliant little insights were profound and sometimes as striking to me as the poems themselves. After World War I and the publication of Hesse’s novel Demian, he moved to a small, unheated apartment in the Casa Camuzzi in Switzerland, and it turned out he had no money because, “the royalties from Germany were worthless pieces of paper due to the extreme inflation and miserable economic conditions in 1919.” The next line actually took my breath away:
The starving poet foraged for food in the forest: walnuts, chestnuts, and berries helped him survive and, of course, he wrote.
I reread that line so many times, trying to wrap my head around the philosopher and writer who had just successfully published a brilliant Bildungsroman, rendered financially worthless by politics and the economy, choosing to rent an apartment in a palace in Switzerland and staying there, foraging for food in the woods, so that he could have the freedom and safety to write. He later described this time as, “the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life.” I stopped reading and looked at my reflection in the train window, aghast. Have I ever worked that hard for anything, let alone the ability to make my art? Is it even possible to forage in the Bronx??
As I mentioned in my last post, September is typically a time of transition for me, the season of my soul where everything goes topsy-turvy. One year ago (give or take a few days) I left the job I’d been at for 3.5 years and had to scramble to figure out how I would put my life back together. In 2014, I was hyperventilating on the balcony of an apartment on La rue de Ponthieu in Paris looking at the Eiffel Tower, that great symbol of industry and optimism, equally exhilarated and terrified at everything I had to do for work and overwhelmed with the possibilities in life. In 2013, I was trying to reconcile my heart with the reality that my beautiful Smokey would probably not make it through the year (he did not), and in 2012, I was trying to accept that I’d had to give up on my chemistry degree and properly make a go of it at my new job, while simultaneously realizing the kind-hearted man I was seriously considering marrying and starting a family with was not truly right for me. And so on. It’s the month of sea change and wake-up calls, of facing harsh realities that necessitate those scary late night real-talk moments with myself, and an existential panic that time is not limitless and whatever I decide, for better or worse, is how my life is passing.
This year is no different, but I’ve managed to slip out of the constraints of time a bit. Talking with a friend the other day, I realized I’d forgotten that it was Labor Day weekend, and he asked if I forgot a lot of holidays now that I am self-employed. I admitted that not only do I forget holidays, but weekends are practically meaningless, as too are the limits of 24-hour days. The lines between things I do for leisure and those I do for inspiration or my career have been blurred past recognition, so it is all a continuum of just living and experiencing and being in each moment as fully as I can. I paint, draw, write, research, and (occasionally) work on the marketing and back-end stuff (least favorite part by far) in long, sometimes multi-day stretches, taking oddly-timed breaks for meals and showers, only wondering once in a while if I should be concerned about my sanity.
That part is glorious, like a fugue where the only thing that matters is exactly what’s in front of me and my time is entirely my own. It fits my natural sleep and energy cycles, and it feels like precisely how I’ve always wanted my life to be, if I weren’t pinned down by a traditional job, relationships that required my semi-regular appearance, or maintaining some illusion of normalcy. But I also fear this time is fleeting, that I will run out of money and be staring down some tough choices. How willing am I to trade my time and energy for money now? What is my equivalent of foraging for nuts and berries in a Swiss forest, and am I willing to do it, or will I panic and give up?
I have always found the contemporary style of labor fairly distasteful and unnatural. I have had some really amazing part-time and contract jobs, but my experience of traditional 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday corporate, retail, and office jobs has mostly been one of frustration, feeling that I was wasting my life, knowing that I could get everything significant I had to do accomplished in the first hour or two of the day and wishing I could clock out and get on with something more important and fulfilling. I was constantly willing my mind to shut off, but then finding myself too tired and worn out at the end of the day to pursue the things I actually cared about when I got home. I may have been financially comfortable (or at least not destitute) but I was miserable and felt hopeless at a soul level.
I know some people genuinely like their jobs, and even when I thought I was one of them, I see now how inaccurate that was. I have never seen a reason why I was required to be present somewhere for 8-9 hours a day or more, no matter how nice the weather was outside, if it took me substantially less time to get my work done and I had all the meetings I needed to have done. I hate the way some people are treated as fundamentally replaceable and insignificant, and I am disgusted by the power imbalances where it’s somehow acceptable to treat someone as lesser because they are at a different point in their lives or careers, or to put money above absolutely everything else, even ethics and morals. And I’ve mostly had pretty cushy jobs and great employers – the dehumanization is just a by-product of bottom lines and corporate structures. I get that that’s how American capitalism works, but I don’t believe that’s how it should be, and I defy anyone to make a real case for why technology can’t help shorten the workday or why a more enlightened, human approach to management couldn’t improve people’s lives every single day.
I used to fantasize about quitting my jobs somewhat regularly, as I suppose many office workers do, but I would abandon those daydreams when I started to ask myself, “Well then what would you do?” It wasn’t a choice of dropping out and being free, as I was still trapped by having to pay rent and utilities on my apartment, I still had student loan payments the size of some friends’ mortgages, and however much I may wish it to be otherwise, I am still stuck in a capitalist society that wouldn’t even let me forage if I tried. It isn’t just a question of trading comfort for freedom, but exchanging one hamster wheel for another, much more difficult one, with no cushioning if I faltered. I spent more than a decade afraid to even try. I still bought into the misguided notion that because someone paid me, my job gave me worth, instead of recognizing that the only real value I have in the world is what I do creatively, how I treat others, and who I am as a person. It’s been a massive existential project to redefine my worldview to one where art is actually important – essential really – and where my existence is more than a ledger of debts and repayment. Despite all the philosophy and Marxist manifestoes I read in college, it was surprisingly difficult to reverse the materialistic brainwashing that I’d considered “becoming an adult.”
So I have extricated myself from the money-based grind and would like to stay free for as long as I can, if not indefinitely. In exchange, I have to hustle and sacrifice. I am working a lot harder than I ever have before, but it is vastly more rewarding to work for myself and know that my energy and time is adding up to something I believe in and care about. I know that my company and my work reflects my values, that I’m taking care not to harm anyone or the environment in my practices, and that the way I spend my time has meaning to me and, I hope, adds something positive to the world. That means so much more than my paychecks and 401k did, though I still have to ask somewhat regularly and with great trepidation, exactly how sustainable this life is. Because now it would irreparably shatter my heart to give it up.
Hermann Hesse found his way. He may have foraged in Switzerland, but he eventually wrote Siddhartha and Steppenwolf, he took work when he needed money, and he figured out how to spend as much time in nature as possible. He demonstrated such a braveness and boldness of spirit it’s staggering, as every real artist and writer has done. I know that my distaste for 9-to-5s wasn’t just generational malaise or an entitlement complex (despite what some fairly critical friends suggested) but because I knew I could be doing more, better things in the world. If Hermann Hesse had chickened out and taken a low-paying job as a clerk in an accounting firm, the world would not have his extraordinarily inspiring, life-changing writing, and who can say what a lesser place it would be for that? As Hesse reminds me:
Even the hottest, toughest days
end in the evening cool and calm
and quiet, gentle mother night
embraces every one of them.
It feels a bit like seeing through the Matrix and realizing I have been free all this time, no matter how trapped I’ve felt. No one was ever going to give me permission to be free, but now that I see I am, I need to fight my hardest to stay that way. Just like when I was looking out the window in Paris, my life right now is equally exhilarating and terrifying with what feels like infinite possibilities. But unlike any time before, I am facing it with open eyes because I’ve chosen this, I’ve made it real, and I am free.