My good friend and roommate in college had a helpful sense of the absurd. Narrowing her eyes as she took a drag from an American Spirit yellow and sipped two buck chuck from a coffee mug in our slowly collapsing Brooklyn brownstone, she’d tell me all about “the struggle”.
We’d commiserate about the struggle during our monthly raids of the kitchen for baby cockroaches. We called those afternoons where we removed all of the food and dishes from the cabinets and sprayed the corners of the cabinets until the scuttling dots stopped moving “massacres” – I can still smell the acrid, but over time increasingly homey smell, of Raid. We’d paper towel out the bugs and residue afterwards, sweep the kitchen, and put everything back where it belonged.
This was just part of the process of living. I don’t think either of us actually believed that it was a struggle with a capital S. We had a roof over our heads, groceries in the fridge, and a public transit card to navigate the best city in the world for free happy hours and art events. That apartment in Brooklyn felt like a base camp in the middle of a wild urban playground, and the struggle was a reference to our attempts to somehow find the meaning of life within it all.
It was a nod to the absurdity of our daily routines. How we schlepped our laundry in grocery bags or carts down the street and sat in a humid room doing school work while our clothing tumbled in a machine behind us. Or we stayed out until 5am and got home as the sun was rising and someone on the street was cooking meat for the neighborhood on a barrel-shaped grill. We often had welts on our hands after bringing groceries home, because we’d tried to carry too much down into the subway and then back up to walk the five blocks to our apartment. We complained about not finding meaningful romantic relationships while sitting in our apartment together on a Saturday night drinking wine and listening to Bruce Springsteen.
Still, simply living in New York felt like an accomplishment. We celebrated the struggle. We knew it was intrinsic to living.
Now, ten plus years later in Alaska, the struggle is different. It’s less ironic. It’s more normal, and boring I think – the struggle is, like, paying the mortgage, or figuring out the error message on the dishwasher. So that I don’t sink into the most boring and horrifying parts of modern life – not becoming that person that’s telling a long and drawn out story about being on hold with AT&T customer service, for instance – I create struggle.
I run. I bike. And, yes, I paint.
Painting isn’t schlepping the laundry, contending with a subway commute, or massacring baby cockroaches. It’s less of an externally imposed struggle. But it’s about attempting to shape and draw out something I so want to bring into the world, and all of the focus, frustration, and satisfaction that comes with that process. At the beginning, a painting is a big old unknown, and it’s up to me to see if I can make it happen.
I still struggle with whether I’m up to the task, every single time. And, frustrating though it is, that’s ultimately what makes every painting worth the effort. It’s one of my ways of finding the meaning in life, even and especially through the messiness and difficulty of it all.