A 2014 Facebook memory, and my Mom

Lately Facebook has been serving me up a bunch of memories from 10 years ago. As it happens, this time of year 10 years ago was a very challenging phase of my life.

Spring 2014. My mother had had a heart attack and had triple bypass surgery, with other medical complications such as diabetes as well, and I had gone up to Virginia to stay with her in her house while she recovered. If I recall correctly it ended up being about three months.

My siblings live an hour or so away from the rural place where Mom & Dad had retired to, and they had always been steadily helping Mom with all sorts of things after Dad passed, so I felt like the least thing I could do would be to go up there for a spell and try to contribute some hands-on support such as helping with driving to appointments, cooking, complying with meds etc. And trying to provide some joy and pleasure.

I actually feel like I did nowhere near enough for my siblings and our Mom, but in my mind at the time it was the best I could do. If I could invent a time machine there is a lot that I would do more & different. Most of it has to do with communication; that would’ve solved a lot.

(My siblings, whose names and other information I withhold out of love and respect, because they are very private people as was our Mom.)

Financially this period back in 2014 was a very hard time keeping up with my apartment and other bills, as I had started to depend on income from location-dependent work (pedicabbing, general labor, retail side-job etc) in my home city of Daytona Beach.

Emotionally it was a very very hard time. Having to navigate between the doctors’ advice, hospital discharge instructions etc., and what our Mom was willing to comply with. Being afraid that my mom might die if I happened to be the only one of us with her and was not able to say the right thing to convince her to comply. It was big because I always felt like I was my mother’s most difficult and troublesome child. From the very beginning of our childhood, the other siblings were always so much better behaved and gave her so much less grief than I did. So there was definitely some history there. Sometimes a parent and child can just have personality differences and it’s nobody’s fault.

Nonetheless, Mom and I did genuinely love each other no less than the other family members. In a different way perhaps but I would say no less. And, we managed to have some genuinely good times even during that rough phase.

One of our pastimes together was watching all sorts of things on TV, such as Criminal Minds and CSI, and Call the Midwife, and The Bletchley Code, and documentaries on the history channel.

For the first time ever, I became dependent on online sales of my artwork to pay my rent and other bills. There were some close calls, but I managed, thanks to many friends and strangers who purchased my artworks. I even went to the farmers market of the little town and managed to sell one of my artworks to the mayor of that town! (Or maybe she was the deputy mayor, I don’t remember.)

At one point my mom asked me, how much do you make from selling your art. I took a deep breath, mustered all the put-on dignity and brook-no-discussion determination that I could, and responded, “ENOUGH.”

It must have been enough brook-no-discussion vibe, because she didn’t say anything back. I couldn’t afford for her to have her attention on that, could not afford to let this become a topic. For many reasons. Dignity was seriously at stake. As well as a legitimate wish to protect my Mom from financial anxiety. (Even though she had always had financial anxiety despite being well-off. There was nothing I could do to help her get past it — I had tried many times — but at least I could do my best to avoid adding to it.)

Having been raised on a middle-class path with the expectation of college and always a cushy office job with all the security, I had always felt a bit in the closet ever since I had dropped out of the middle class in the early 2000s. Actually, let’s be honest, I started dropping out of the “professional” middle class almost as soon as I started trying to endure the office thing, it just took a while for me to muster the courage to fully disengage.

The finances, harrowing as they could be, were never the hardest part of it. The hardest part of it was the fear of disappointing my parents. Of becoming — or maybe already being — that embarrassing weird family member no one wants to talk about.

I never did really fully come out of that closet, although they always knew that I wasn’t working any kind of steady job, let alone one of those “professional office jobs.” What would be called a “real job.” I tried it for a few years right out of college but it just didn’t feel like me. To the point where it felt like death. So I had to choose life, and if that sounds melodramatic, so be it.

This photo shows a few of the artworks I made during that Spring 2014 time period. The period of my mother’s heart surgery and recovery. All of my artwork before had had a very strong Texas flavor –and then later on when I moved to Florida, a Florida flavor.

It’s kind of startling to look back and see this little batch of artworks that were influenced by my surroundings in Virginia. The garage one is inspired by my parents’ garage, and was very much filled with the legacy of my Dad’s memory. When I look at that piece of art I can still smell the garage.

Dad passed in 2010, and Mom in 2017, but I can still smell the garage. It smelled like ancestral sawdust and multigenerational carpentry, rust and petroleum, car interior vinyl, road atlases, our family‚Äôs whole life together. It smelled of stored dreams and archived hopes. It smelled, too, of course, of everyone else’s impressions which were out of the bandwidth of my sense of smell’s range.

It smelled of memory-traces that I guess follow a person or family over the years from one garage to the next: It smelled of snow and cigars and little organized jars of screws in Grandpa Nazak’s basement in northeastern Pennsylvania; it smelled of tarry pilings in Yokosuka; it smelled of a swimming pool on a military base in Long Beach; it smelled of juniper bushes on a manicured desert suburban street in San Diego, it smelled of cut grass from different lawns of the different houses we had occupied.

During the “Virginia 2014, Mom’s Heart Recovery” phase, there was a point when I was selling my artworks for $13 apiece. It was tough, but it got people buying, and it added up to pay my rent, and there is no feeling like the satisfaction of that! That at an extremely challenging time of my life, I was able to pay my bills entirely with pens and pencils and paints.

If I had not been able to find a way to make money, I would’ve had to give up my apartment and then had to look for a new place when it was time to come home to Daytona Beach. Thank God that did not have to happen.

For many reasons — mainly because of my activism — my mix of work nowadays, and throughout most of my life other than some unusual times like spring 2014, has generally included multiple activities in addition to my art.

However, I remain grateful, and I also remain a strong advocate to fellow artists who are trying to earn their livelihood purely from their art. I’m here to tell you it’s totally doable.

There were a variety of emotional pressures but it still worked. Art IS a way to make a living. The arts ARE a way to make a living. I believe Kurt Vonnegut said that, and I totally stand by that.

Artists are needed in this world. All types of artists and artisans are needed, no less than roadbuilders and architects and lawyers. It really does take all of us, and if any of us aren’t showing up, it’s like if you were a paint brush trying to be a hammer. You might be able to hit a few small nails with that paint brush but really the paint brush needs to be making paintings, and if you have a big nail you need to go get a hammer.

Back in 2014 when I first posted these, some rando on my feed commented that they were crap and even his kindergarten daughter could do better. Well I totally believe that, because kids are great artists and I’m a decent artist but I’m really not all that.

But the fact remains that my art paid my bills and kept me from having to give up my apartment, and nothing can take that away. From me or any other working artist. Fellow artists navigating life, I salute you!

By the way, my mother was an artist too. She never had to depend on it for her livelihood, but she was no less an artist. She made outstanding sculptures of dogs and horses and other subjects. She drew and painted as well, and made jewelry. I always think I got my artistic side from her, and from our cousin Jim Kay.

If you want to see my drawings that popped up in my Facebook feed today, you can go here to the post on my art and design page.