If you could get a glimpse of my desk right now you might not see anything Zen about it.
Maybe you could just accept my latest explanation: “I’m an artist and this is my own ongoing-interactive-avant-garde-installation/happening-type performance work?”
Amongst the collage of papers, Post-Its, office supplies, and arts swag, there is one tiny bit of Zen wisdom taped to my computer monitor that stares back at me on a daily basis. It allows me to realign myself whenever I lose sight of the bigger picture of my work, a simple quote from one of those page-a-day calendars:
“A Zen master, when asked where he would go after he died, replied ‘To hell, for that’s where help is needed most.’” ~ Roshi Philip Kapleau
Before you assume that I’m comparing my current situation, job, or life in Oklahoma to hell, I would like to add, I feel genuinely blessed to have a career as a cultural worker in Oklahoma, where our work as arts leaders and advocates is always meaningful and definitely cut out for us.
I actually feel this quote is just another version of the Irish blessing: “May you always have work for your hands to do.”
Interestingly enough, both bits of wisdom seem to relate directly to our Oklahoma state motto: “Labor Omnia Vincit” (Latin for “Labor Conquers All Things”).
However, working in a state that has more than its fair share of social issues and problems, I would be misleading if I didn’t admit there are times when it’s hard to see the big sky of possibility with all of the question marks floating above my head.
You can open the newspaper on any given day and feel your heart sink as you skim through the constant “news” of any of the following: high rates of child abuse, poverty, substance abuse, or health problems. Statistics on rising dropout rates, rising tuition costs, and problematic school systems. Numerous stories of people who have fallen on hard times including veterans returning home from the battlefield.
You ask yourself questions such as: “When my elderly neighbors on fixed incomes cannot afford their medications or when 95 percent of the children in my district are on the free and reduced lunch program at school, how can we effectively advocate for public funding for the arts without sounding out of touch with reality?”
While this may sound hypocritical, I must admit that it’s those very times I step back and question the value of the arts that are necessary in restoring my faith in the work that we do as artists and arts leaders.
Sometimes I ask myself the same questions posed by those who oppose funding the arts.
“Why are we here and why do we matter? How can the arts really make a difference when there are so many other needs to be met? How can we, like our own Woody Guthrie, utilize art as a tool to raise awareness about injustice and empower those in need?”
Usually when asking these questions, it does not take long for the answer to present itself. But the asking does seem necessary.
In closing, I’m reminded of a theatre director who was feeling overwhelmed with career frustrations. She consulted a fellow nurse friend of hers about the possibility of getting out of the arts and into a career that would really save lives.
Her friend replied to her: “While I have saved lives on a regular basis, it’s the arts that give people a reason to live.”
So from Oklahoma: here’s to you and your work as you set out to conquer all things.