Last night my sweetheart and I sat down to write our vows. We decided to write a common one, a vow that we both create, but that is singular, so that what we promise to each other is more or less identical. This isn't the first time we've written anything together. About a month and a half ago we wrote a story together that we recently performed about our coming wedding and our continuing relationship, and what role, if any, past lovers have in both those things. It was a fun story to tell, and it was at times, incredibly difficult to write. But I enjoyed it. Based on that experience, I thought that while writing a vow would certainly be emotionally charged, it would also be fun. So fun is not the word to describe our experience last night.
I think I'm learning some really interesting things based on last night's experience. It was important to both of us to discuss the nature of the artist's life in our vow. As we discussed what we needed the other to promise us, what we needed to hear and what we needed to say, I discovered something. I'm pretty puzzled still, doing quite a bit of sorting.
So the conversation dissolved into one of what it means to be an artist. When is someone an artist, when are they not, and what role does this shifting (if it shifts) identity have in our marriage?
Okay. So I knew I was a girl at an early age. I knew that I had a vagina and I liked it, and I learned that some of the social behaviors of girl I was really fond of (skirts, cooking, the occasional lipstick and pair of high heels) and others I could toss aside. (always being on the bottom, having babies--I almost never had cheerleader or gymnastics fantasies. I did however, fantasize about being a model. And an astronaut.) There are still plenty of "woman" behaviors and ideas I have to sort through, but I'm working on it. I also knew at an early age that I was black too, although wrestling with what that means is a continual process. I learned that I was straight, and I believe that I was born that way.
But I didn't know that I was an artist, didn't know that that is who I was, until maybe seven or eight years ago. I had always gravitated toward creative things--elementary forensics, music, dance, theatre--but never thought of myself as an artist until I considered that the absence of these things, of a demonstration of creativity, in my life made me unhappy. I believe that I was born an artist as much as I was born black or female (despite the shifting sands of these labels), and while I am just beginning to learn what it means, I believe it is as permanent and indelible a part of me as a blood type or a finger print.
But what if you don't believe that? What if you believe that you're only an artist when you're making a thing? Or thinking of making a thing? What if you're an artist when you're working on bringing story into the world, but when you're working on making the health care system a bit tidier and easier to navigate, you're just a software consultant? What if you're an artist when you consider the way the sky is reflected in Lake Michigan when the sun is setting in the west, but when you're doing your taxes you're just a motorist on Lakeshore Drive? Do you have to earn your artist's self by performing as one? Is it you that measures yourself as an artist? Is it others? Is it the world?
These questions don't go too far for me, because, like I said, I believe the quality of artist is indelible. I believe that when I am too busy teaching to write I am still an artist, and I believe that when my sweetheart is too busy trying to earn a living to write he is still an artist. But he does not believe this. To tell it true, for as long as I have known him he has struggled to identify as an artist. He introduces himself, most recently, as a software consultant and not as a writer. I've never understood why; his mind considers the most esoteric and nuanced qualities of expression, communication, identity and engagement. While it's true that he works slowly, I do not think that his pace is what dictates his identity. I don't know why he doesn't own this part of himself as keenly as others; and keenly is a bit of a misnomer, because he gets twitchy about claiming most parts of himself. He doesn't like to be tied down into claims of who he is and is not, and he really doesn't like to be lumped in with others.
I say all of these things to say that last night he asked me to promise him that I would love him even if he chose never to be an artist again. Now, an artist according to whom? If I define artist as he does, as someone making things and thinking about art, and he chooses never to make another thing in his life, can I promise to keep loving him, certainly. But it gets trickier if I use my own definition of artist. His self as an artist is as real and permanent as his self as an Asian man: can I promise to love him even if he's not an artist is like asking can I promise to love him if he suddenly becomes white. Or black. It is wholly inconceivable to me; I don't know what my sweetheart looks like as a white man, and I don't know what he looks like as a non-artist. If he never made a thing again with any ambition, I'd love him just as fully and powerfully as I do today. But if he walked away from his artist's life and was happy with it... well, frankly I don't know how those two things can exist in the same sentence. I don't know how he can depart from his artist's life and be happy.
It occurs to me today that maybe this is the business of marriage. Here's what I mean: I think that I am genuinely scared of what it means to promise this man, whom I know with my whole self is the right one for me, that I will promise to love him if he denies his artist's self, whether it makes him happy or not. It scares me because I don't know who that man will be; I never met this man when he was in denial of his artist's self, and I don't know how hold he was, because he's known that he's an artist for a loooooong time. I see him struggle with his process now, and I see that it makes him unhappy: I see how badly he wants to quit working for a while so he can focus on projects which have been left unattended for months, even years. I see the quiet envy in his eyes when people write the books and tell the stories he wants to be telling. I see how hungry the artist in him is, and I cannot imagine what will have to come true in our lives, for him to abandon that part of himself entirely, and be happy with that choice. Can that thing be good, that thing that brings him the absence of artist in himself, and still makes him happy? How is it even possible?
On top of which, and this is the part where I get to sound like a selfish prat, what will happen to me if this is the man he becomes? What if while he has left the artist behind, I am still a teacher/writer? What if I am the one who's into the flaky ethereal business of making things, and I'm married to my father, or my cousin, or any of the pre-med-pre-law-consultant-type boys that my alma mater was clogged with, and my husband doesn't think I'm the creative shit anymore? If, in walking away from his own artist's self, will he continue to love my artist's self? Will he support how badly I need to tell story if he suddenly doesn't need to tell story anymore? I fear feeling permission to be myself, my writer/teacher/yoga enthusiast-with-ambitions-of-learning-to-teach self, if I one day wind up married to a software consultant/VP of Information Systems/CIO who just doesn't have time for the part of himself that used to create, and thus won't love the part of me that creates.
So maybe this is the business of marriage. Maybe this is why it's so fucking scary. Marrying someone isn't scary, or isn't just scary, because you could get soaked and lose half your shit if you divorce, or because you risk looking like a fool to your friends and family if it doesn't work out. It's because you're promising to love someone who will change. And I'm not talking about saddlebag change or Rogaine change. Inevitably, they'll be different in a year than they are today, and in ten years different than they were a year ago. And you're promising to love and live with and do life with them, regardless of who they become. Yes, there are limits: if your honey suddenly becomes someone who needs to steal from you to feed a gambling debt, or decides they like abusing their partner, or worse, your children, then all bets are off. But in marrying someone you're promising to love what they have carted to your table on their back, and you're promising to do your part to walk beside them if the path of their life takes them off the path they're on.
I am not locked in a crisis of relationship. But this is scary, and it's scary for a lot of reasons. I want to promise my sweetheart whatever he needs me to, in order to walk into life with me without hesitation or reservation; and I want him to be able to do the same for me. Maybe I need him to promise me that no matter who he becomes, (to say nothing of who I become, because I'll be changing as he is changing) that he will choose to grow closer to me, and that even if he denies his future artist that is clearly, CLEARLY so elemental to his current self, that he will still love my future artist, such as she is.
If you've made it this far, pat yourself on the back, because this feels complicated. I want to hear from people about this, similar struggle, questions, comments. Marrying readers, married readers, partnered readers, single readers, artist readers. Holla back.