Tag: art

Esperanza Spalding, James Baldwin, and The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity

I was walking home listening to the amazing Esperanza Spalding on a recent episode of the Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! podcast (start at 20:00). She made double entendres about playing bass. She talked about how she started out playing the violin, and then tells us how she found her way to her one true love:

Esperanza: “When I saw that bass, I [knew] that’s what I wanted the whole time.”

P: “What drew you to playing the bass?”

Esperanza: “Nothing that I can recall. But the sound is tremendous, you know, it sits on your hip bone, and it vibrates your skeleton, and it’s like, kind of musically orgasmic. It’s incredible, I have to confess… It’s purely for self-interest of pleasure.”

P: “What’s crazy is… that’s the dirtiest thing anyone’s said on public radio and it’s all totally allowable.”

Esperanza: “I can start a hotline where people can call in and we talk about jazz…”

I found my way online and saw her recommendation to listen to James Baldwin’s The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity. The reading brought a lump to my throat. I couldn’t find the complete transcription online (outside of reading The Cross of Redemption available on Google Books), so for kicks, since I have to work hard to maintain my fast typing speed from the days of 10 simultaneous AOL chat windows and Mavis Beacon games, I typed out an excerpt that I found particularly compelling.

I really don’t like words like “artist” or “integrity” or “courage” or “nobility.” I have a kind of distrust for all of those words because I don’t really know what those words mean. Any more than I really know what such words such as “democracy” or “peace” or “peace-loving” or “warlike” or “integration” mean.

And yet, one is compelled to recognize that all these imprecise words are kind of attempts made by us all to get to something which is real and which lives behind the words. Whether I like it or not, for example, and no matter what I call myself, I suppose the only word for me when the chips are down is that I AM an artist.

There IS such a thing. There IS such a thing as integrity. Some people ARE noble. There IS such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that all of these words, the reality behind these words, depend ultimately on what the human being, meaning every single one of us, believes to be real.

The terrible thing is that all these words, the reality behind them, depend on choices one has got to make forever and ever and ever, every day.

I am not interested really in talking to you as an artist.

It seems to me, that the artist’s struggle for his integrity is a kind of metaphor, must be considered as a metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this terrifying globe to get to become human beings.

It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. I would never come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do.

What we might get at this evening, if we are lucky, if the mic doesn’t fail, if my voice holds out, if you ask me questions, is what the importance of this effort is.

It would seem to me that, however arrogant this may sound, I want to suggest two propositions.

The first one is, that the poets, by which I mean all artists, are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets. That’s my first proposition. We know about the Oedipus complex not because of Freud but because of a poet who lived in Greece thousands of years ago. And what he said then about what it was like to be alive is still true, in spite of the fact that now we can get to Greece in something like five hours and then it would have taken I don’t know how long a time.

The second proposition is really what I want to get at tonight. And it sounds mystical, I think, in a country like ours, and at a time like this when something awful is happening to a civilization, when it ceases to produce poets, and, what is even more crucial, when it ceases in any way whatever to believe in the report that only the poets can make. Conrad told us a long time ago (I think it was in “Victory,” but I might be wrong about that): “Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” Henry James said, “Live, live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” And Shakespeare said — and this is what I take to be the truth about everybody’s life all of the time — “Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion.

I highly recommend reading more about James Baldwin. Brain Pickings has some amazing highlights.

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

“You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.”


I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain; and never shut myself up in a numb core of non-feeling, or stop questioning and criticizing life and take the easy way out. To learn and to think; to think and live; to live and learn: this always, with new insight, new understanding, and new love.

— The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

A turn of events at the end of the year leaves me even more contemplative and evaluative about the coming days. Immediately after the news, I went for a run. Steady feet, quickened breath, cool and heavy Houston air. I realized again for the umpteenth time how lucky I am, how marvelous it is that my legs work. I haven’t forgotten to have gratitude for it, and I hope I never will.


Sometime in the middle of last year, I wrote my 1,000th post on this particular blog. I finished with 154 posts in total for all of 2015. I created a new website, became a New York City subway expert (I can guide you anywhere, really!), and was lucky enough to eat at a lot of new restaurants. I did my first handstand, which has been a goal since 3 years ago. I learned more about cooking. I read a lot of books. I practiced being okay with feeling deeply, instead of fighting it.

Meanwhile, somewhat unintentionally, my writing here has changed. Instead of a hodgepodge of quick notes, it’s turned into a collection of longer, more edited entries. Over dinner one night, a friend encouraged me to publish more. I resist publishing at times because I feel censored in what I say and pressure to edit out imperfections. “Publishing makes you a better writer,” he insisted in response.

So with a deep breath, I’ll try to publish more. With intent. I thought about a few other things that I would like to work on in the coming year(s), and I’ll think about ways to make them measurable:

  1. Be persistent.
    Debbie Millman said, “Expect anything worthwhile to take time.”
  2. Leave room for uncertainty and creativity. 
    My entries here have become more formal, but I want to retain a balance of whimsy. Don’t engineer the art out of life. Don’t plan a trip so specifically that you miss the chance to wander and get lost. Don’t compose so strictly that there is no room for the improvisation in jazz. Imagine immensities. Even if you’re scared. Even if you’re uncertain.
  3. Be brave enough to find stillness. 
    It takes a lot of bravery to be still these days. The “fear of missing out” can feel overwhelming, but sometimes the richest adventure can be found in the quietest, stillest moments.
  4. Speak up. 
    There’s a reason why communication is so important in life. In conversation the other day, a friend and I talked about how “language is the bridge between our hearts.” It’s not always a perfect bridge, and it takes courage to cross it. The times that I have been able to find you on the other side, it’s been worth the risk.

I’m still cautious and working on opening up. I am so grateful to the people who have inspired and supported me. The ones who continue to encourage me daily to reach toward passion and beyond my hesitations.

The only thing holding me back from doing my first handstand was trust in myself. I was strong enough, I just needed to believe that I could do it and let go of all my fear. I still find myself wondering, “What if I mess up? What if it’s not worth it?”

But hasn’t it all already been worth it? Isn’t it amazing? Falling is part of flying.

Paraphrasing Anaïs Nin: the risk to remain closed becomes much greater than the risk to open.

Life is gigantic, and we don’t have much time. It took stepping away from my computer to find the words to finish this post. So let’s get lost together, let’s play some jazz.

Cheers to 2016, and living fully. So it begins, again and again.


Qualities that turn me on

I stumbled across Wendy MacNaughton’s expressive illustrations of Susan’s Sontag’s diary entries about love (featured on The Atlantic and Brain Pickings).

Below, Sontag’s “Qualities that turn me on (someone I love must have at least two or three)” from 2/15/70:


The complete image with more of Sontag’s thoughts on love after the jump.

I particularly love:

Can I love non-possessively, permissively, without withdrawing myself, setting up my own defenses and strategic retreats, on one hand, or reducing the amount and intensity of my love, on the other?

Written the margin: “Scarcity economy of love”

Read More