The Four Golden Keys to Art and Happiness

The last time I had seen her she was doing crack, trying to offer me some, and rambling to an imaginary dead brother through a broken television screen in the hotel room I had just paid for. She had beautiful brown curls and dreadlocks going down half her body. I was debating what I could do. It was in 1995. I got scared and left. At that moment, I felt like I was in over my head. Like I was swimming but I didn’t know which direction the air was. It took a long time for to breathe in the air and when I did, I squandered it. But that was then.

Three years later, I ran into her again. Some people have a connection like that.

I was working on a documentary with Jon Alpert for HBO. Ultimately the documentary was slated for the graveyard before it really had a chance to live. Many things  die like that. We die before we really live and then it takes another 50 years or so before they finally bury us.

Jon and I were looking for interesting stories to film at three in the morning. We found a group of homeless kids near St. Mark’s place. He told one guy in the group what another guy said about him. We only had a few hours with these people and Jon wanted to film some punching and maybe a lethal injury. People love to watch blood and violence and we were catering to “the people”. Jon had his camera ready to go, it was three in the morning, everyone was a junkie, and violence was like language.

(a segment from the web version of my 3am documentary).

“Hey, I remember you,” said one girl lying on the ground in the middle of all the kids and she pointed at me. She remembered me from three years earlier. We moved off to the side. “Where’d you go? I waited for you on  Thanksgiving.” Because you need a special day where you can say “thanks” instead of just being taken advantage of all the time. Without thanksgiving where would we be? People would just take and we’d say “You’re welcome” “you’re welcome” “you’re welcome” – all day long. Sometimes you just need to say “thanks” and close your eyes and relax. Even for a day, no “you’re welcome”.

I said, “14 years from now I’m going to write about this in a blog post.”

Which, of course, I didn’t say. Instead I made excuses and lied. I was ABL. Always Be Lying. I wanted every moment of my life to be like a work of art but I was going about it in all the wrong way. Lying and stealing and then going broke many times and letting people down and then getting anxious and getting stressed and feeling panic and wanting to die and wanting to have sex and wanting to kill other people and lying more. And holding a little baby who blinked for the first time, moistness and clouds clearing away from her new eyes while I said, “you’re my little honey”.

To indulge in experience is to create art, I thought. But it got messed up. I don’t know what happened. “If only” … right?

“If only”. That’s what we say when we didn’t do “only”. When “only” turns to “lonely” because nobody wants to hear it again. “If only I”… long after everyone gave up on your “I”. “If only I was a better person.””

You have to stretch a canvas to create art.

You can imagine what I’m going to say. It’s a cliche. Can I say this without sounding like a cliche? I want to say “your body and mind is the canvas.” I want to say, “you can’t stretch your experiences, you have to stretch your SELF!” Hmmm, that’s a little better. How about: “Your sadness, your fear, your panic, your regrets are the canvas. You have to stretch them out, whitewash them, paint over them. Then you can create art.”

A little bit better. Still cliche.

Let’s say for a second you want not only to be art but that you want life to be a work of art. And by work of art I mean, something that transcends the humdrum, something that removes you from the box of toys our child-creators put us in at night when they sleep. Something that allows us to reach out and touch the ocean inside of us and hopefully bring others to sail with us.

The Four Golden Keys To Making Your Life a Work of Art

– You have to want it. Which means you have to want to improve in every way you can. Not improve your ability to do math. But IMPROVE. Many people want to complain. They don’t want to improve. Complaining is the opposite of improving. Can you take a ONE DAY diet from complaining. I was going to say “ten days” but that’s a trap because nobody can do ten days. If you complain at all during your diet you have to start from scratch. If you can do this for one day then it probably means you want it.

– Your core principles. The only way I’ve ever been able to improve is to take a step back from all my stresses and worries (which are always just tinkertoy buildings created by the wooden widgets of my thoughts) and do what I call The Daily Practice: today and today only (there is no other day) focus on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. If you think you are stressed out of your mind. If you are crying when nobody is looking. If you wish that the world around you is one you never would’ve have chosen, then you need to take that step back and return to core principles. For me, it’s only worked, only only only, when I’ve done this. Here’s the summary of my core principles.  What are your core principles?

– Be honest. Not with others. Not in a “I did this” confession sort of way. Outward honesty is the river that flows from inward honesty. Honesty is: Was I really physically healthy today? Did I really not judge people needlessly today? (Try this: everytime you even think a judgement put a question mark at the end of it). Did I really engage only with people I love today? Did I really not waste time complaining about things I can’t control today? Did I really exercise my idea muscle today? Did I really take the time to breathe today and to breathe deeply before I was interrupted by the anxieties and pressures that bullshit that try to overcome me every day? Did I make sure I ACTED instead of just sat around scared? Can I really be honest and answer those questions? Can I really surrender? Did I sincerely follow my core principles? Answer “yes” to all of the above and then go to the next step.

– Persistence. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow will never exist. It’s just “right now”. Persistence is making sure that “right now” you aren’t taking a break from the three steps above.

I’m excited. PBS wants me to do some web videos for them. I already did a few. I went around NYU campus talking to students about their debt. I couldn’t believe some of the answers I heard. I tried to cure Claudia’s post-traumatic societal stress syndrome in another video. I tried to beg for 5 dollars on Wall Street in another video. Within a month or so I’ll start putting out these videos.

Now I have an idea. I think I want to go out again at three in the morning in the middle of NYC and see what people are doing. I haven’t done that in a long time. Maybe the world has changed a lot.

But there will always be people who don’t fit in during the daylight, in the cubicles, in the suits and ties, with the mortgages and the fears and the anxieties. Do you fit in with them? There will always be people who only fit in when the world is asleep. Maybe this time I won’t judge them. Maybe  this time I can learn from my greatest teachers.

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