A Little Distance
Category : Art
Well, it happened again. Insert sensationalist news headline here. Earthquakes are a-quaking. But not right under me. Not here. Not this time. We felt the biggie, sat up in bed, said ‘Is that a… oh shiiiit,” and zig-zagged to the doorway, but all the hundreds of after shocks, all hours, night and day, we don’t feel them. Not this time.
And it makes all the difference. Like when your baby starts sleeping for more than 2 hours at a time—blows you away how much better you feel, how your brain and body remember how to function the next day. World of difference, and it comes as a surprise.
We get to feel capable. I get to feel like some kind of super hero. Like I’m something special because I can get on with life despite it all.
I can handle the jandal. Helps that the jandal only gave me a gentle caress upside the head, no skin-tearing ear ringer.
Don’t get me wrong, we are weary again. Packing go-bags and filling the water drum from last time, wondering where we put the little battery-powered radio. The day after the biggie that lifted seabed up out of the water and shook the hills off their perches, and stretched the railway tracks around the coast like tinsel draped around a tree—the next day I went to do the groceries. Did a big shop too. Our supply lines are cut, right? Time to pack the cupboards with dried noodles and tinned beans, and other things we may never eat, if all goes well. But just in case there’s a shortage coming… so I’m rolling around Pak’nSave, trolley laden, and I find myself back in my old habit of stopping at the start of an aisle and casing the place, pinpointing where along the ailse I’ll find the four things I want so that I can dash and grab, bee-line and get out quick. Just in case. Spend as little time as possible caged in by towering shelves lined with glass bottles and jars and tins that’d likely brain me if they flew out, if the fault faltered again.
And we’re assured it will. So it’s not unreasonable to think this way.
Tiring, though. And old. Gets old fast now. Only a week later I did the whole shop and the thought only popped into my head once, and not until after I’d done the olive oil aisle.
Yep, I’m getting blasé already. Getting good nights’ sleeps, and nothing fell out of the cupboard when it was a seven point fiver, so…
We’re just that little bit further away. Not even 200kms but still… a little distance makes an enormous difference. The kids slept through. They don’t seem stressed. They talk about making themselves into turtles and crawling under tables like its a game.
I’ve been supervising exams these past few weeks and I’m in there for three hours with almost nothing to do, walking up and down rows of these kids. And thinking. And for some of that time I’m thinking about how they were ten or eleven when Christchurch was hit hard. Anxiety in this age group is meant to be way out of whack. Across Canterbury, mental health issues are significantly increased, post quakes. How many parents are watching their teenagers and wondering if some awful moment is a normal teenage grappling with impending adulthood or something else?
But I might get to skip that, as a parent. My kids are just young enough, just far enough out of reach. Lucky for us. But I feel for those near the action now. I remember—not perfectly, no one does maybe, but enough. In the thick of constant preparing and wondering and what-ifs, you can only really react. Even the plans you make are reactions in disguise.
It looks and feels like a plan, proactive and careful, but nope. Just a reaction. A ruse!
Time and geographical distance is what I have now, and both give me the space to think in a very different way. Not a reaction but a considered, self-aware processing.
I can choose not to check geonet constantly, not to tune in to every news broadcast and fill my head with the cycle of stories—stories of tragedy, near-misses, even the wonderful stories, the happy ones, contribute to a kind of obsession.
I can choose to get my head out of earthquakes, this time.
It didn’t seem like an option last time. Obsession was required—or seemed to be. Of course it’s easy now. Easy not to be obsessed. Easy to tell others not to become obsessed, to warn them it won’t help.
Much harder for those there.
I can step out of myself, almost, and watch my response. I can separate the visceral reactions for the ones I can control. I’ve figured out: I can’t help looking up to see if the lampshades are swinging but I can choose not to get on Facebook and feed off everyone else’s responses.
I’m far enough removed to notice how this whole thing translates so readily to art—this distance, with it’s pros and cons.
When you first create something, you are so close to it, moved by it, reactive, obsessed. Necessarily so. Attempts to be self-aware and moderate, and any pretense of getting on with normal life, is seldom successful and if it doesn’t feel just plain ridiculous it probably, at the very least, is bad for the art itself.
Distance, though, does several things. Time teaches you to see the work objectively. You can measure its impact, see its strengths, weaknesses, self-indulgence and spark of genius. Quakes can bring out the genius, the generosity, the community potential we all kept so well under wraps when life was ticking along and we didn’t need to rely on each other. In the throes of making art, the art and the artist can be completely unpredictable, can do things no one can explain. At the time, it may seem madness. Later, though, the madness shakes out and it becomes clear which bits were brilliant and which were, perhaps a necessary part of the process but not something to hold on to and retain and revisit and celebrate.
Shake it out. Find the gold. Toss the grit.
Distance has its pitfalls too. Feeling less can suck all the heart out of art, and that’s a problem because,
“the most important element of art or architecture is human emotion.”
– Barak Obama in a speech just this week, awarding Medals of Freedom to a whole raft of people including designer and artist Maya Lin.
He’s so right. Art is important because it has an impact on people. The way it influences or moves people might vary wildly, but it is those responses that lend art enormous value.
Distance can also make you blase about the value of your creation. The rush of passion and sense of importance, the urgency and vitality that pushed you through, you can’t feel that way all day every day. It’s exhausting.
So. Very. Exhausting.
But the absence or presence or intensity of that feeling isn’t a reliable measure of the value of your work.
Distance can be a wonderful thing and I am so very aware of this—every time I see a quake tweet and didn’t feel a thing, every time I watch a light shade swing and then look over to see my kids continuing their colouring-in, blissfully unaware… hurrah for distance! But it comes with dangers too. Feeling less. Forgetting what matters. Being faithless, even: to yourself, your experience, your creation, your community.
I have no easy answer here. No cure. No fix. It’s a tension we’ll have to sit with, struggle with. Along with the survivor’s guilt and some variety of impostor’s syndrome, the best thing is first to become aware. Be patient. Be kind—to yourself and others. Be present. In fact, that’s always good advice for artists. Being present makes for excellent material. And it’ll slow you down a bit, which makes for healthier artists. Working artists. Truer art.
This post was going to end here. Feel free to stop reading, by the way, but I just thought of another application for this distance pro/con conundrum.
Honestly, feel free to stop reading.
Geography puts me, if not out of reach of a particular narcissistic megalomaniac (yes, the one who is making even the Dutch reconsider the colour orange), then at least in the far reaches of the danger zone. Socio-economic factors put me out of touch with numerous aspects of NZ’s politics. Ability, education, race, sexuality, age, body type and gender can give you proximity or distance from any given movement or issue or piece of legislation. Having diverse friends will lend you proximity to issues you would otherwise easily, unwittingly, be untouched by.
I am a white, cis, hetero, able, young, employable, educated home-owner. I could choose to feel less about so many things. I have the luxury of that choice. I could forget the importance of issues that don’t touch me, and be faithless. It’s easier for me than for most.
Distance can be nice. Easy. I get to feel capable, independent, in control. When distance is dropped in your lap, accepting it is instinctive.
Oooh, goodies. For me? Yes please.
But can I implore? Is that allowed? Please, bridge the distance. Seek to feel more—for yourself, and your humanity, and for others. Choose not to forget how important these things are to the daily lives of other people and their families. Choose to be faithful, first in thought, and then follow where that leads.
A little distance can be a good thing, a much-needed breather, but too much and we all lose out. In politics—which is far reaching. In art. In civil defense.