Friday, June 15, 2007

Focus, obsession, and interruptions

I love my family. But before I got married I lived alone for 15 years, and I was shocked to discover how much time it took to have a day to day relationship with someone. Although Dean and I had courted for five years, we had been living in different states the whole time so there was none of this "Morning, honey, did you sleep well" chitchat.

Now, as it turns out, I like that sort of chitchat. But it does eat up time.

Then we had children. Talk about a time sink! Not only do they want me to do things with them -- read books, play games, go places, talk -- but then there are the things I need to do for them -- the laundry, the dirty bathrooms, the clothes they keep growing out of, the meals they need, you name it.

They have seriously cut into my fiber arts productivity.

A digression: I have always been intrigued by people who focus on something to the point of obsession. I was bowled over the first time I saw James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly
at the Smithsonian:


It's very hard to get scale from this, but this collection of altars and other furniture fills a garage. Every time I see it in person I am bowled over; it makes me think about the time he spent and the focus he maintained over about 14 years -- with no feedback from anyone else.

Just the other night I watched a documentary about Henry Darger, who makes Hampton seem like a trifler. (It's called In the Realms of the Unreal.) He spent over sixty years working on one major book? piece? story? artwork?, as well as many related materials, an autobiography, and other odds & ends. He lived in one room, had very little human contact despite working steadily, and left about 30,000 pages of illustrated manuscript. Here are a couple of pictures from it:


I also met someone rather Darger-esque when I volunteered at the Brautigan Library. A young man came in with a hand made, hand sewn book. The pages were flattened out grocery bags -- he worked as a bagger -- on which he had spent the previous winter writing a sort of autobiography that seemed to revolve around his birth. (It reminded me of Tristram Shandy.) There were many collage pieces on the pages to illustrate the story, and the text and the collage interacted in fascinating ways. I tried to convince him that his book was art as well as a story, and ought to be shown to art dealers or rare book dealers as well as to the Brautigan -- a special place, indeed, but not one equipped to deal with that sort of manuscript. He was unwilling to leave his manuscript at the Brautigan (and who could blame him); I never knew what happened to it or to him after that.

My point? Cut off from much of normal human social interaction, these people achieved a lot. Their productivity was pretty impressive.

Gotta go now. My kids need breakfast -- and boy, am I glad.


(P.S. In the interest of accuracy I should point out that I didn't achieve anything very impressive or meaningful in my 15 years of solitude. But I sure did get a lot of knitting & spinning & reading done!)

3 comments:

jessie said...

I totally relate to this post. I don't have time to be obsessed with anything (except perhaps the fruitless pursuit of alone time).

I am happily married and love my family but I admit I feel a twinge of jealousy over those people who can spend an ENTIRE weekend on projects of their own choosing. What is it like to watch a movie (not by Pixar or Disney) in its entirety without interruptions, and at the same time work on a knitting project without having to get up every five minutes to attend to others' needs?

Some of those people say they are lonely but I think that's just to make the rest of us feel better.

Elabeth said...

I loved that Darger documentary. I saw one panel of his work in Little Rock at an "outsider art" show there at the museum.
They don't really convey how huge the panels are in the movie. It was at least a couple of feet tall and about twenty feet long on a roll of butcher paper. It was awesome.

rebecca said...

we saw the Throne of the Third Heaven in April. Wow!

Now that my daughter is grown, I have time that I used to spend on her. I'm not sure I'm any more productive now. And sometimes I miss her.

anyways, I think it's worth the time and energy it takes to give the world the gift of your wonderful children.