Mina’s mother burst through the kitchen door, agitated. „Will you keep it down! What’s the matter with you? This is neither the time nor the place...!” Mina looked at her mother. „We’ll keep it down, Mrs. Norelo,” Jarrod said appeasingly. She gave a tight nod of thanks and left the room. The five friends, Mina and Jarrod, along with Bella, Piolo and Tim sat around the table in silence waiting a while for tempers to cool. They’d been having a heated argument, and it wasn’t over yet. Jarrod, who had always been the most volatile, and the most verbal, spoke first. „Your mom’s wrong, Mina. This is exactly the time and exactly the place. If we don’t do something now, while we still maintain some level of autonomy, it may be too late! It will be too late, and you all know it.” „No, we don’t know it,“ Bella burst in. „The committee is still trying to negotiate a compromise....” „Oh, come on, Bella! These people don’t even recognize our confederation as sovereign communities.” Piolo’s voice was on the edge of rising again. „They aren’t here to negotiate or compromise. Their only purpose here is to take from us what they want...and kill us in the process if we don’t go along.“ „Piolo, please,“ Mina said quietly, as she looked toward the door. He raised his hands in acquiescence. „We have to stop them now,“ Jarrod’s quiet tone was tinged with fire. „Mayla has made that clear.“
Everyone fell silent. Mina stood up and went to the door leading to the living room, opening it part way to look through at the mourners. Though Mina wanted very much to be in there with her mother and Mayla’s mother, she knew she had to be here. Jarrod and Piolo were right. Choices had to be made now, or the final choice, the choice of their survival, would be out of their hands.
Things can change in a moment. A year ago, Mina had been content in her room, weaving her fabrics, the work she enjoyed most– meditative, solitary, quietly creative work. Her life was simple and unhurried, idyllic in many ways. After the worldwide drought 100 years before, many that survived were determined not to repeat the greedy errors of the past and turned their backs on the „technological advancements“ of the previous centuries. They’d learned to live and be happy with less, they’d learned to simplify, and they’d learned to share. From the time they could understand concepts beyond their own needs, children were taught to learn history, and learn from it.
There had been warnings before the great water catastrophy - doomsday scenarios could be found everywhere – in the books, in the films everywhere in the media archives of the time. But changes in human behavior were not timely and doomsday came and then went. Water virtually disappeared, and what there was to be found, was sullied. Billions died. Mina’s forefathers came to the north where the communities of the confederacy were established around still untouched underground springs here at the base of the hills. And in this valley, they rebuilt with their dreams.
Water was declared free from the beginning, and it was woven into the fabric of their belief system and their way of life that every human being had the right to have clean water and every person had a moral obligation to respect the rights of others to that same water. For them, this freedom stood hand in hand with the unquestionable freedom of every living soul.
The Declaration of Insolvency and Progressive Reconstruction
-Decreed by the High Court of the Collective Republic-
„ Due to its propagation of ineffectual social and political systems, its fostering of primitive economic and educational systems and its sloven approach to developmental potentiality, the current leadership of the confederacy is hereby declared invalidate. The Committee is to be replaced by representatives appointed by this court, effective immediately. Anyone who stands in violation of the sovereignty of the new governing body will be subject to prosecution.”
Mina and her friends had refused to submit to this new „governing body,” with its new system of rules and its oppressive mentality. The Collective Republic had worked quickly, almost immediately building piping systems, syphoning the water out to their own territories, rerouting the free waterways, blocking all free access to the springs and wells, demanding payment for every gallon of water consumed – all against confederation laws and all against the accepted laws of nature in the valley. They called it a progress. But the builders, in their hurry to construct, had somehow allowed sewerage to leak into what was left of the fresh water supply in the valley, and the water had been slowly contaminated. Now, cases of dysentery were more than a few and nothing was being done about it. The representatives denied responsibility and threw the blame onto certain rebellious elements. Mina and others like her did hold periodic secret raids to free the wells and newly constructed dams, but everybody knew what the actual truth was. And now, several people had died, mostly elderly people and small children, like 5-year-old Mayla.
Mina had loved little Mayla, her neighbor and her friend - only 5 years old. Often, while Mina worked at her loom, Mayla would sit on the stool at the window. Sometimes she would ask more questions than Mina thought there could be answers in the world. Sometimes Mayla would talk about bugs and butterflies, or about her friends and her „not friends” in the playgroup. Sometimes Mayla would just sit and watch her weave for long periods, and sometimes she would sit next to her on the floor and play. Every once in a while, Mina would let her sit on her lap and they would work the loom together. Her arms were not yet long enough, she was small even for her age, and not very strong. Mayla was not sickly, but she was delicate, and this delicacy had made her susceptible. Her death tore at Mina’s heart like thick claws, and she felt herself pushed over an edge she didn’t even know existed.
„Once we begin, there will be no stopping.” Tim spoke for the first time. „We don’t know what the consequence will be, not only for us, but for our families.” Bella broke in, „And are we truly prepared to face what their fate will be...losing us first, then harassment, maybe abuse, some sort of imprisonment, and maybe worse. Let’s be real, and not get caught on a hero’s merry-go-round.” „What’s real, Bella?“ Piolo stood up and moved to the window. He took her words to heart. But this was something else. “The reality is that we are dying. The reality is that we can no longer live the way we choose to live. The reality is that they will accept no less than total submission and the absorption of our world into theirs. The reality of this survival is subjugation, nothing more. Can you face that reality without a struggle?” Bella was quiet, her thoughts churning. Tim cut in, as usual, the voice of contemplation. „What about us? What do we become if we take on their methods, even for our own survival. This was not how our forefathers envisioned our reactions to be. Even if we win, will we….win?” „We will win our lives back!“ Mina was suddenly sure and she looked at Jarrod, and he knew her decision was made. „To do nothing is to self-destruct, and that cannot be the answer they envisioned. Mina moved from the door back to the kitchen table. „Something will be preserved, whether we live or die, if we are clear about what we are fighting for. I, for one, do not want to watch our lives end here, passive and waiting for salvation.”
At 3:00 am, two days later, Mina got up and moved as quietly as she could. Her parents were deep sleepers, especially her mother, but she didn’t want to take any chances. The less they knew, the better. She sat at her desk to write a note to them, saying not to worry. Of course, they would – she stopped in mid-sentence and breathed deeply – and for good reason. But all the truths that she had unconsciously lived by were now clear before her eyes, and she was prepared to do whatever she had to, to set the world right again. She would learn to disable machinery and incapacitate communications systems. Use a gun? Set an explosive? Yes, if need be. There seemed to be no end to the tunnel of sadness that she now walked through. She hoped with all her heart that out of her struggle would grow a legacy of peace and prosperity, as she had known it. But right now, a price had to be paid, and she was willing to pay it.
Mina grabbed her coat and back pack and took one last look around – at her writing table now clear of its usual piles of papers and her loom sitting quiet with a ray of moonlight cutting across it. Another hope entered her heart, that she would pick up here one day, right where she left off. Closing her door softly, she made her way through the house to the back door. She would take the forest path, still only known to her small community, and meet Jarrod and Piolo. Bella and Tim felt their work was here, preserving what they could, helping through the troubled times that were upon them. A last hope was that they would meet again.
It was 3:30 am. As Mina went through the back door and closed it, she hesitated for a few seconds, leaning against it, and prayed for guidance. What she did not see was her mother sitting in a chair in the corner. What she did not hear, was her mother whispering her good-byes. She looked up in the darkness, pulled her courage and determination forward, and headed out into the night.
I take a look at my friends and we all seem to be asking ourselves the same question. What the hell am I doing with my life?
Mary's getting married on Snapchat, Lukas is adventurously traveling the world on Instagram, Tim and Sophia are having a baby on Facebook - #mylifeisbetterthanyours – and meanwhile I'm sitting at home, eating I-feel-sorry-for-myself ice cream in my sweatpants - #mylifesucks - asking myself in every ‘Netflix-is-moving-on-to-the-next-episode’ break:
Why is the grass always greener on the other side of the screen?
We split our life into two major categories: personal and occupational. So when one goes wrong, we always have the other. Your boss may be a jerk, but you do have that hockey game to look forward to. Your boyfriend may have left you, but you just can't wait to go on that company trip.
But what if you decide to make one part of the other? Say you make your hobby your job … like athletes or - in my case - artists?
We define ourselves by what we do and spend most of our time doing our job, so naturally, we define others by their career choices. One of the first questions we ask to get to know a person is: „So what do you do for a living?“ „I'm an actress ...“ Now there are two universal reactions that follow this statement. Number one: „Can you actually live off of that?“ Or number two: „Wow, so will I see you in Hollywood?“ And when you're forced to answer "no" - to one or the other, or both - you are either met with pity or blankness.
The problem with pursuing a career in the arts is that there is no clear path. If you want to become a soldier you join the military. If you get a medical degree, you become a doctor. You might have a degree in dancing but where do you go from there? And maybe you never attended any university, but you still become a writer….which makes us ask:
What exactly is art? A single black dot on an 80x80 inch white wall? A complicated symphony? A 500-year-old story retold in a modern society context?
What is the definition of a true artist? A red carpet? Pain and suffering? Followers on twitter? Becoming famous after you've passed away?
What does it mean to be professional? Being on time and knowing your shit? Making money? Speaking truth behind those words on a page, those movements in a space or the paint on a canvas?
Art was born with humanity. From cave paintings, to ritual dances to theatrical storytelling. It has always been with us, a sibling keeping us company from the beginning, a tool with a triple purpose: to express our own emotions, to pass knowledge on to others, as well as to entertain. It reflects on and is a reflection of society and its diversity is just as vast as the human race. There is no single definition. But in our obsession to define and explain everything we have tried to pin it down - and two major ideas have emerged: the struggling, suffering artist and the successful star.
So here we are, back to our initial question. What the hell am I doing with my life? Everyone we graduated high school with is posting updates on promotions, salaries and company parties while I am still trying to figure out why I decided to do what I'm doing.
Somewhere along the road of western civilization art has changed. It has become less about sharing and more about showing off. Less about passion and more about prestige. Less about community and more about competition.
We are so blinded by the fortune and fame aspect of it, that we forget to look at content. That's why we spend the first hour of the Oscars talking about who has big enough boobs to pull off what dress and listen to wannabe pop star voices trying to out-belt each other in casting shows.
Art reflects on and is a reflection of society and we have forgotten the beauty of simplicity. Everything has to be big nowadays. The problem with that is that if you try to make things bigger than what they are, all you do is fill a void with hot air and you're left with an empty hot air balloon of art.
So instead of focusing on the nonexistent substance, you have no other choice but to look at the surface. It’s not that every piece of art out there is superficial. Naturally not. But it is striking how many famous actors' faces and bodies are redesigned in post and how much auto-tune you hear on recordings. Producers and record labels make the decisions and they often don't care about educating, they care about selling. There is a reason we call it industry.
So you try to stay away from the new market and concentrate on the good old days when art still had meaning. Well that is easier said than done, because you are entering the territory of educated snobbery. Excuse me, you can't see the difference between a Renoir and Monet? What do you mean you can't tell if it's Bach or Mozart? And you can't name the 40 authors of the Bible … well you are just in the wrong place, my friend!
Fine! You do your own thing then! Ah, but see, the thing is … what is so special about you? What makes you better than the others? Why should I fund your project if you are a no-name? Go get some followers, become a YouTube influencer and then we can talk!
Many people think being an artist is just fun and games. But if you want to survive in today’s world you are not just an artist. You are also an agent, publicist and marketing manager. You not only have to know and master your craft, but must also be able to promote and sell yourself. Hell, I didn't sign up for that! All I want to do is create.
So there we go … I give up … I get myself a day job. But not the I'm-waitressing-while-going-to-auditions-struggling-artist-day-job … a real 30- to 40-hour job. And look at that! All of a sudden, I am not considered an artist anymore. I am an accountant, teacher or technician who likes to paint, make music or act in my free time. But the worst part is that we start believing it ourselves. We start to believe that we gave up on our dream, when, in reality, we are looking for ways to make it come true.
Being an artist is an art in and of itself because you have to find your own unique way of doing it.
We often mistake perfectionism for professionalism. But by trying to make things perfect, all you do is try to please everybody else and, slowly but surely, you lose track of what it was you were actually trying to say.
If we wait for perfection in order to be something we will never be anything.
I'm a musician who can't read notes. I'm an actress who hates going to auditions (I just don't see the point of sitting in a room with 15 other women who look just like me, the only difference being that they're thinner and prettier). I'm a writer who can't spell and a dancer who can't do turns worth a damn and hardly lift her leg up to 90 degrees.
But no matter what I do, I do it with passion. I love being part of something, performing with other artists and sharing our energy with the audience. I don't care about awards and fame as long as I get the chance to say what I want to say.…. I would take the fortune, though ;-)
You want to be a musician? Be a musician! You want to be a painter? Be a painter! And don't let where your main income comes from devalue your work. We can feel happy yet still sad. We can walk while drinking coffee. We can be a Dad and a banker at the same time so why can't we be a florist and a dancer?
Coming to that conclusion I ask myself, ‘am I just writing this to convince myself that the path I have chosen, am choosing or will choose is right’? Maybe. But sometimes it's good to remind ourselves that it's okay to take and live by the advice we give others.
So, my fellow artists and stuck in “what-the-hell-am-I-doing“ friends, in the end it comes down to this:
Look at those kids, the weddings and promotions and move on, because chances are Mary, Lukas and Tim are looking at you, feeling just as envious. Let people pity and question you … those are their emotions, not yours, and they have to deal with them, not you! Don't let anyone rush you and don't rush yourself. You do not have to live every day as if it were your last! Have that ice-cream, binge-watch the Nanny and don't find excuses for doing it … just enjoy it. Do everything at your own pace, because if you walk your own path, no one can outrun you.
The only person you spend the entire span of your life with, from the time you wake up in the morning 'till you go back to bed at night, is you. You are the only one you are truly married and bound to for the sum total of your days. So you had better enjoy it … ‘cause if you don't… who will
The Man stands in front of the window looking down at the street far below. He’s been there for some time – a half hour, maybe an hour. Time is of no consequence to him……he is waiting for the hour of decision.
He watches the tiny figures moving, barely visible to the naked eye, indistinguishable from one another. Color and shape from this height are indiscernible. Again – these things are of no importance. Proximity would not soften his attitude towards those down below, but rather intensify it. Thirty stories up, or thirty inches away, they are all the same to him.
He is a psychopath, but he doesn’t know he is. He is also a maniacal manipulator of the human mind and heart, and though he accepts and celebrates his manipulative capabilities, that he is maniacal also escapes him. He observes those thousands below through his window like a child observes an anthill – comfortable and unquestioning in his ascendancy, thoughtlessly watching their comings and goings, setting up random barriers, watching how they momentarily panic, then change course, and then settle into the new direction he has randomly selected. He could watch them live and he could watch them die – no questions, no sentiments, no sorrow or remorse, and no matter. There are always enough of them to serve his purposes.
He is delusional as well, extraordinarily so, and of this he is also frighteningly unaware. In his eyes, he stands high above those miniscule creatures below, higher on the scale of human development – greater in mental capacity, with a higher degree of ingenuity and analytical adroitness. That is why he stands here, looking down. He embodies the phrases “impeccable taste”, “finesse and delicacy”, “transcendent sophistication”, or so he assesses himself. And no one, no one, contradicts him.
The sensors are activated by movement and the doors breathe a soft whizzing sound to open. A distinguished man-servant walks in silently, pushing a gold-rimmed cart with an elegant sterling silver tea and coffee service (the Meissen is never used), a carafe of whiskey, a fine honey-colored liquid that sparkles in the rays of sun, and slices of Iberian ham on a silver platter with Yubari melons and 3 Lobster Frittatas.
The Man does not turn around but acknowledges the distinguished man-servant with a comment and a question, keeping his gaze on the street below: “When I walk down there, everyone I pass has an odor of sweat and cheap spices and perfumes……”. “Yes, sir” is the man-servant’s automatic, non-committal answer. “Why don’t you smell like that?”, the Man asks. He turns to look at the man-servant. The distinguished man-servant, who has been preparing the dining table, stops for a second to answer. “I take a bath - twice a day.” He maintains his tone. The reason for this nonsensical, degrading exchange is clear to them both, though the Man, so contained is he in his delusional state, has no realization that the distinguished man-servant can read him so accurately.
The exchange is meant to establish supremacy – not of a racial classification, that would be too primitive; and not of religion, that is the game of childish minds; not of educational accomplishments, that is too….fortuitous; and certainly not in the category of desirability – he, himself, establishes the hierarchy of aesthetics in the world, manipulating opinions of beauty, creating the pictures out of the images in his mind.
No, not those irrelevant categories…..but rather a kind of superiority of species….a breed, if you will. He is of a higher order of human evolvement. He smiles at this “truth”. His self-deception is at once impressive and ludicrous in its omnitude.
The distinguished man-servant looks at the Man in questioning silence. “No, nothing else”, says the Man. He has missed the momentary shadow that passes between them, as he always does. Once again, his delusions shade his judgement and cloud his eyes.
The door breathes again as the distinguished man-servant leaves the room. The Man watches him go with a combination of disinterest and query. ‘The man-servant never seems to rush but is timely in everything he does. Some of them have valuable, useful qualities’.
The three men sit in silence, distracted and introspective. Only the scraping of forks gathering the last vestiges of the frittatas, spoons clicking the bottoms of tea cups and the distant strains of Aaron Copland, now Quiet City, discreetly piped in, can be heard - a cacophony of sounds, usually subconsciously dismissed, but now acoustically amplified as they echo through the tense air of the room. As if by magic, or by telepathic communication, the distinguished man-servant enters the room to remove the now-empty service, leaving only the whiskey. The men do not acknowledge his presence or his service, and they miss the shadow that returns, passes between them and disappears.
The door breathes open and closed, and, once alone, they begin to converse.
“A Mule….Asimov’s Foundation….an unexpected element.” “Unexpected and undesirable.” “The times are volatile.” “That serves us….if we control it. Envy, mistrust, fear, anger are high. They can’t live any other way.” “They are beginning to know.” “Know? They are sheep, no coherent direction without us. They will follow.” “The times are volatile. We need a distraction!” “War….is distracting and profitable.” “No, already over-engaged. The young ones must grow up”
Silence. They show signs of discomfort.
“Awareness is growing. This “mule” creature focuses on us.” “Who is it?” “Unknown, for now.” “We have all resources at our disposal” “Operating…..but so far without result” “We must know…soon.” “And then, our course of action? Elimination?” “May be Unwise….risk of martyrdom…..encourages solidarity” “Scandals?......usually has effective results.” “And if he or she is clean?” “None of them are clean!”
A burst of low-key, grotesque hyena-like laughter and then silence.
The distinguished man-servant has heard these conversations many times. So secure are they in their ability to make puppets of the citizenry, that they are blind to the human ability to assert its humanity. He knows, it is the money that blinds them. If “fear is the mind-killer…”*, then excessive wealth is the soul-killer. He’s seen it too much and for too long. He thinks of his granddaughter. This is for her - for her laughter, for her wit, for her curiosity, for her imagination, and for her grace. He picks up his bag holding everything that is his and turns to the door, to the hall, to the elevator, and steps in. The time has come and a decision has been made. He watches the numbers of the floors as he descends. The elevator lands on the ground floor, and serenely the distinguished man-servant steps out and leaves the building for the last time.
To be continued……….
*Dune by Frank Herbert, 1965