I’ve had a fucked-up thought lodged in my head: This is the best year of my life.
It didn’t fade with the lockdown or the onslaught of daily tragedy delivered via news, email, phone, and text. If anything, the worse it got out there, the better it became in here. I’ve tried to beat back the feeling, reason and plead with it, point to the litany of horror that 2020 has been. But the heart knows what the heart knows.
The year began with a great weight lifted: Soviet Stamps came out. I’d been nursing it like a sickly infant for five years. Now it was well enough to hobble away under its own power. I drove to New York from my parents’ house after New Years’ and taped a talk about the book for the Virtual Memories Show.
Now the table was clear and I could work on my bar book and get ready for my portrait show in August. I had a move coming up as well. Things were looking good.
Then the lockdown came and I started packing. I lived in my old place over five years so there was a lot to do. It was surprising how quickly I adjusted to the new restrictions. In between trips to the dumpster I worked on the last paintings I’d make on Lituanica and texted friends to see how they were coping. The news wasn’t good. All my musician friends especially were losing their minds. I sympathized the best I could, then went back to what I was doing.
With everything ready to go but still a month’s wait till the movers came I decided to fill the time by pushing up a project I’d planned for 2021. I reedited, rewrote, and redesigned my two cab books into one new volume. While doing the often tedious tasks involved in book-making everything in the outside world disappeared.
I moved in May and hope never to leave this place. After a month of setting things up I started making collages. I hadn’t made one since high school but could see myself making them for years to come. It’s rearranged my head about what it is I do and how I do it. And it came as a complete surprise.
What friends, family, and news reports concentrated on in this plague time was how much everyone missed human contact. I wasn’t as completely isolated as some. I saw a couple friends from time to time but I didn’t miss crowds or casual contact with strangers at all. As Travis Bickle used to say, “Loneliness has followed me my whole life.” It’s an old and trusted friend. Left to my devices I was able to concentrate fully on my work. Since I couldn’t draw people in meatspace I started drawing them off my TV screen.
I don’t know what success would look like. If I had a retrospective at the Art Institute while winning the National Book Award, I’d figure out a way not to enjoy or appreciate it. But I made my best work this year and sold more of it than ever before. Would that have happened if it had been a “normal” year? Who knows?
I’m putting the finishing touches on the bar book. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. I may quit book-writing after it’s published. Who knows what comes next?
My mother likes to repeat the story of my being born with a hangnail. I take that to mean that there’s always something irritating, burrowing into me. Always something not quite right. In high school I let a hangnail get so infected it nearly gangrened. I still get them but they last only a few days. I can dig them out so they stop hurting me now. I never had fewer than the past year. This is as happy-go-likely as I will ever get.
My mother lost both her parents this year. Friends got sick, lost their jobs, their minds. I just kept working. The pain, suffering, and loss must be baked into some of what I’ve made this year but none of the misfortune paralyzed or slowed me. I didn’t ignore or block out the misery but neither was I engulfed by it. I don’t know how to explain it. Selfishness, myopia, monomania. Maybe this is just how I am.
Is my good year at the expense of others’ pain and suffering? That’s magical, grandiose thinking. We each bring the meaning with us; the larger world doesn’t give a rat’s ass about our personal concerns. The fact everything came together for me the same time the world was falling apart is just a cosmic joke. A coincidence with no deeper significance. I turned fifty this year, an age when many painters historically hit their stride. Plague or no plague there’s an arc to an artist’s career. I crested in the middle of a universal freefall.
Next year, when your life is on the upswing, maybe we’ll pass one another somewhere. Hopefully, we’re both maskless. I’ll be the one going downhill as you ascend. Don’t gloat. Try to say a comforting word if you can. I’ve tried to do that throughout this year. It’s all we can do.