Shambhala Sun | March 2013
Nothing is Wasted
If you use your difficulties to create art, says RUTH OZEKI, it will give them meaning.
When youíre a writer
or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult
situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and itís
the artistís job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude
might sound a bit cold and calculating, but itís not. Quite the
opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a
means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and transform our
suffering into something meaningful.
death of my grandmother was a painful and difficult situation. My
mother didnít want to go to Japan for the funeral, so I went instead. I
arrived too late for the cremation, but in time for the interment of my
grandmotherís remains in our family plot at the temple cemetery. On the
morning of the ceremony, my aunt took me into the living room where my
grandmotherís urn was waiting. Using a pair of disposable wooden
chopsticks, she picked out three or four of my grandmotherís white bones
and put them into a small Tupperware container. This she sealed and
then handed to me, instructing me to take the bones home to my mother.
This tradition, called honewakeóďdividing
the bonesĒóis pretty common in Japan but not in America, and fulfilling
my auntís wish was not easy. My mother, while ethnically Japanese, had
spent most of her life in the United States. She had no use for these
old Japanese customs, and in addition, my relationship with her was
strained and difficult at the time. When I called to tell her that I had
brought her motherís bones back from Japan and wanted to take them to
her, she did not sound happy. So I dropped the subject, and the little
Tupperware container ended up on a shelf at the back of my closet. Years
passed, and my grandmotherís bones, this skeleton in my closet, began
to haunt me. Finally, I decided the only way to deal with the situation
was to turn it into an art project.
I made a film called Halving the Bones.
I bought a camera and filmed myself and my mother as I finally
delivered the bones to her. We talked about our family, our history, my
grandmother, and death. During the editing, I continued to interview her
and ask her questions, and when I finished, we watched the film
process brought us closer, so much so that later on, when she was
diagnosed with Alzheimerís, she agreed to move in with me and my husband
and allowed us to take care of her, and then to be with her when she
died. I donít think any of this would have been possible if we hadnít
made the film together. I realize this was a ridiculously complicated
way of dealing with what ought to have been a fairly simple problem. I
could have just gone and talked to my mother. We could have gone into
family counseling. But that solution never occurred to me.
I started writing novels about the difficult situations in my life.
When I was confused about workplace ethics, or sad about the deaths of
my parents, or angry about corporate malfeasance, or anxious about the
Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I used the long process of writing
stories or novels to sit with my discomfort and investigate it deeply.
Iíd ask myself questions: What
does this feeling feel like? What kinds of stories am I telling myself?
What would that person think or do? What would it feel like to be
inside his mind? Her skin?
Writing is not unlike meditation in this way. In meditation, you become
intimate with your stories in order to see through them and let them
go. In writing, you become intimate with your stories in order to let
them go, too. But first you must capture them and make them concrete.
no need to be a professional artist or writer to transform difficult
situations into creative work. Poems, or journal writing, or quilts, or
collages, or songs need never be made public. They can be utterly
private, because in privacy is where the work is done, even for the
so-called professional artists. Humans, all of us, are boundlessly
creative beings, and as long as we recognize this and give ourselves
permission to respond to our difficulties artistically and intuitively,
not just medically or practically or rationally, then we can access this way of transforming suffering into something meaningful, which may benefit us all.
Ruth Ozeki is a bestselling novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, will be published in March by Viking.