We were driving home from the grandparents’ house on the Fourth of July. I was driving, my wife, Michelle, was in the passenger seat beside me. Two-year-old Bennett was buckled into his car seat in the second row behind me and little Olivia was right next to him in the middle. Four-year-old Jacob was in his newly positioned seat all the way in the back, in the third row of our SUV.
The giant dark blot of a thunderhead loomed in front of us as we sped down the highway. The washed out orange of the fading summer sunset lingered behind the rolling clouds, creating an abstract canvas of color and darkness. As we made our way toward home, we all scanned the horizon, searching for bursts of light. Just waiting. Each of us individually and as a collective unit. Waiting. At that time of day, just as light is disappearing into dark, the Florida sky always feels particularly expansive. Almost endless. So we had a lot of space to examine.
On this occasion, though, the payoff was quick. Off to our right in the distance a firework lit up just above a line of trees, like a tiny star bursting. Then there was another on the other side. And then miles ahead seemingly on top of the highway in front of us. These weren’t official fireworks displays, of course, but rather individual pyromaniacs just having a good time. These guys and girls are seemingly everywhere in Florida. Always ready to torment their neighboring humans and dogs on the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve, and several random nights throughout the year.
While Bennett quickly fell asleep and Olivia was oblivious as one-month-olds tend to be, Jacob was transfixed. He couldn’t get enough and kept looking and looking for more. Lucky for him, more kept coming. There were lulls as we moved along the highways, and later, back country roads, but each period of waiting was punctuated by a suitably exciting light show.
If only life were always so simple.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like life—or at least modern day, developed world life for people who have some level of circumstantial privilege—is largely defined by waiting. Think about it.
First you wait to grow up. When you’re older, they say, you’ll be able to do whatever you put your mind to. The sky is the limit. So you wait. You tolerate high school. Depending on your path, perhaps you go to college. At each step along the way, you are constantly reminded that your real life, that independent and limitless dream of a future existence, has yet to begin. It’s sitting out there, a step or two away. You just have to wait.
And maybe that belief lasts until you are truly on your own. Whenever that time comes. When you are 18 or 22 or even 30.
But then you quickly realize that dream was just a shimmering mirage on a scorching highway under the summer Florida sun. Whenever you start to get close to it, it manages to disappear. But wait, they say, that dream life is still out there, you just haven’t reached it yet. Once you advance in your career, find a mate, and settle down to start a family, that’s when your real life begins. All of this? What you are doing right now day to day? That’s just preparation.
And maybe after a few years you do start to feel your real life starting. Sure, maybe you’re not exactly where you thought you’d be with work or your relationships, but at least you have a job! You finally have some money in the bank and a comfortable place to live. You ask yourself, has your real life started now? At last!
And then everything does start to click. Maybe you get married and have children. Or your career really starts to take off. And it really is everything you ever wanted. Except, it’s also hard. Like really hard. Because that independence thing. Yeah, about that, that’s kind of on the back burner again. You have more important things to worry about now. But the big problem is, there are no perfect answers to the questions you now have to answer. In fact, the available answers are not even close to perfect.
Now, you get to choose between work and family. Because one of the two is going to suffer. At least in your own mind one of them will suffer. Maybe you start out down the family path and everything seems sunny and warm until one day you realize you are in your mid-30s and you have no clear avenue to achieve anything that could be classified as a career. Or maybe you start out down the career path and as you finally start to move up the ladder everything feels pretty great. Maybe your mate has taken on more of the domestic responsibilities or maybe you’ve split everything right down the middle with both of you balancing work life and family life. Either way, you’re probably both stretched too thin. One day you take a breather from your busy lives and realize that your kids are growing up right in front of you, but somehow you are missing it.
So there you are again. Waiting. This time you are waiting for your kids to get a little older. Gain a little more independence. Sure, you tell yourself, you will miss these early years, the hugs and the cuddles and the early childhood joy and innocence, but at least when they are older, things will start to get easier. Yes, that’s when your life will really begin, they tell you. You’ll have your freedom and you’ll be able to do, finally, all the things you’ve always wanted.
But in the meantime, you keep waiting. And this waiting is even more acute if in the midst of all the chaos—the work, the marriage, the children, the life—you have something inside of you that you need to express. If you have ideas you need to share, words you need to write, jokes you need to tell, canvases you need to paint, machines you need to fix, or any other creative urge that you don’t just want to express, but you really need to express in order to feel fully alive. And it’s a near certainty that you have these urges. Because you are human and that’s what humans do. They create.
Yet, if you’re not careful, the waiting often overwhelms the creating. It’s like you’re an amateur juggler and through practice and experience you’ve become an expert at juggling three balls, but you’ve never quite been able to make that leap to four. Try as you might, whenever you try to work in that fourth sphere, your coordination betrays you and everything comes tumbling down.
And even if you manage, even if through hard work and lost sleep you find a way to create something that you’re proud of, it’s easy to fall into the waiting trap again. In this case, you are waiting for that big break. Maybe you don’t even realize you’re waiting, but really, you are. Every time you write a blog post, paint a picture, send a tweet, pitch a story, or make a sculpture. You create, you send it out into the world, and then you wait. And maybe you will catch a break on occasion. In the vast world of creativity, maybe your work will resonate with someone. And when it does, that feeling of triumph is intoxicating. In that moment, you feel like you can do anything.
But then that moment passes. Usually quite quickly. A personal example. There are several websites I admire that I long wanted to see my writing on. I tried and tried and after many rejections I finally broke through with a couple of them. The moment of acceptance and publication is wonderful, but soon, the cycle of waiting and rejection resumes. And then it’s really easy to give up. Actually, you have to give up—not the creating, but the waiting.
Eventually, you have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Like, really, why? Because the answer can only be that you love the process and you love to make things. In other words, you have to do it because it sparks something inside of you. Because, realistically, you’re never going to make it. In fact, when you really think about it, there is no such thing as making it.
Whether your creation is received by millions of people or no people, its intrinsic value is the same. Whether you make millions of dollars or zero dollars, the art is no different. Everything around the creation, the trappings and packaging, might be different, but the art is just the art. Either you need to make it or you don’t. So, I guess what I’m saying is, keep making your art. Or don’t. Whatever feels right. Always remember that ultimately you are doing it for you.
And stop with the waiting. Because in art, as in life, what you are creating at any point in time is the real thing. There is no mythical real life out there waiting for you; you are living it every day. Whether you realize it or not.