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The Joy Menu #19: Loveseat
Your author inhabits the seat of patrimony — literal and figurative — to investigate a lineage of passion and passion deferred.
Every morning I have coffee and write in my journal in an old tan loveseat — faded, stained, flat. A loveseat I think of as Jack’s loveseat.
Thirty years ago, before my family went to New York for my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary (and my brother stepped on a jellyfish), our one year-old dog was run over by a car. In surgery, they reconstructed her pelvis and gave her a good prognosis — if she had time to heal. But as we were heading out of town, someone had to watch her.
The plan was hatched for my grandfather, Jack, to fly all the way across the world to sit with our dog while she healed. When he arrived, he looked around the living room and said: “But where will I sit?”
That day, he bought himself a loveseat: tan, sturdy, soft. It sat in our house ever after.
When my mother and father left California for Ohio to weather my father’s illness, some twenty-seven years later, I took it.
Now I sit on it every day. To read, to sip coffee, to write.
While plenty of people (myself, my father) have spent more time in this chair than Jack ever did, it’s somehow still Jack’s chair.
I’m sitting on it right now.
My grandfather was born in Johannesburg in the 1920s. The first of his family born in this new country, he was the first native English speaker, and the first South African — and also, in a way, the last.
I have an image of him as a boy surrounded by other boys his age, little Jewish South Africans, still yet to appreciate the privileges that would be granted them as “white enough” in a country desperate to bolster its European ranks. Their fathers are tradesmen, peddlers, poets — Yiddish speakers, immigrants, Lithuanian transplants in the dust and newness of this colonized “outpost.”
Yet what do they know? They yell in English, they curse in English, they swing at each other in the dirt, play tag, run races, fashion a cricket mallet from a stick. They dream of who they will become, not how.
Jack — as the story goes — wanted to be a dentist.
Raised by his older sisters, a decade his senior, his mother dead and his father (my namesake) hardly present, it was his dream. A dream of dentistry.
As a child sixty years, 10,000 miles, a culture, a class, and two generations away, I chuckled at the idea of dentistry. I Imagined it not as a passion, but as a route to respectability, stability, status. In my position, with my opportunities, being a dentist was a job, and a boring one at that. But it was always possible — if I had wanted it. And for that reason, perhaps, it held no sway, no magic, no draw.
It never occured to me that it could have meant more to Jack than that — that it could have called to him other than for its respectability, or steady pay, or upward mobility, things that may have enticed a poor kid playing stickball in the street, but held no interest for me. I never stopped to think about what it meant to long to be something. What we shared in that longing — even if the locus of his desire felt quotidian and practical to me.
Still, it was closed to him. Instead of becoming a dentist, Jack’s sisters were able to support him in becoming an accountant, which at the time required a year of study and then a paid apprenticeship. More practical. More affordable. More feasible for three girls working as stenographers, as receptionists, running a household, taking care of an unreliable father, and putting money away for their baby brother.
Accountancy allowed Jack to build a practise, to help his friends, to rise into the professional class, to raise a family, to buy a house — and when the time came, to emigrate.
They say it never made him happy; but it was a good, honest, reliable career.
The story goes that because of that experience, Jack supported his sons in whatever passion drove them forward — whether it be lucrative, professional, or not. And my father continued this; if I wanted to be a writer then he wanted to help me become a writer. No hesitations, no doubt, no questions asked.
Often, I imagine, I could have benefited from some doubt. But such is life — that we’re given the path we’re given, gifted the route we’re gifted, and we either accept it as fated, or suffer the regrets and pulled hair of ‘what if’.
If Jack suffered from not being a dentist, I don’t know. I’d ask the chair, but it holds no answers, only asses.
Is Passion Fuel or Fire?
Passion is a gift from beyond. An energy that courses through.
Who knows where it comes from or why it appears, but there it is: enlivening certain actions, certain interactions, certain activities, and ignoring others. Like a slant of light which shines through a crack in the blinds into an otherwise dark room, it can appear suddenly as if it’s always been there, and disappear as quickly.
One of the great mysteries of my childhood was how my father — once enlivened so entirely by art and art making had, at 35, stopped making art entirely.
I knew he was an artist because our home was filled with his art, and with the art of his friends, colleagues, teachers, and peers — art, I came to understand, that he hadn’t purchased, but had traded for; one of his for one of theirs.
That image, of my father, creative, productive, immersed in an artistic community, enlivened my imagination, captivated my mind, and fed my own romantic sense of what it meant to be an artist, to make art, to live a creative life. From as young as I can remember, that became my dream.
As much as that ray of light shined for me, the darkness which covered the rest of the room left me confused: how did my father lose this passion? Why did he let it go?
Was it because of me — because of the need to earn a living in order to raise three kids? To take up a “respectable” and “stable” career?
To become an accountant, as it were, rather than a dentist?
The story my mother tells is that one day, my father came home and had changed his mind. He’d no longer head to the studio to create the prints he’d once loved making; he’d close the paper business which had been his post-printmaking fascination (if a struggle in business terms).
He’d go back to school and become a landscape architect.
For most of my childhood, he wore a suit and tie and sat in boardrooms. He left early, before we were awake for school, came home tired, leaving his folded slacks on a chair by the front door. On weekends, he was stressed, needed time to unwind, and did not want to play. If he did take us to the park, or on a drive, or to a museum, there was always the chance that — with a hair trigger — he’d erupt into angry roaring, cancel the activity mid-stream, and return us all to the house.
Is this the tense bourgeois life I implicitly compared to the other, romanticized “artist’s life” he’d left behind? Is this why I spent so much of my twenties running from any idea of “career,” any idea of an organized, linear professional life?
Is this why getting a “real job” as a school teacher at 32 felt like a profound and damning loss?
The acid coffee, the stink of linoleum, the windowless break room, the angry, disillusioned colleagues, the interdiction against sitting while we taught — it was easy to see such work as the polar opposite of art-making. As the kind of prison we’re sent to it if we come up short in pursuit of our dreams.
Is this why it felt like a deeper, more existential failure?
Had I also become an accountant?
Had I, too, failed to become the dentist I had always longed to be?
Much of the energy behind this newsletter is an attempt to reconcile an artist’s life with the life I actually live. Which is a creative life, of sorts, but not the life I imagined for myself as a boy, or a teen, or a young man.
Much of it is an attempt to understand why that splinter of light brought me so much joy, enlivened so much of my soul, created and blossomed into so much passion, and then suddenly went dark.
Went sour. Went south. Went bad.
I don’t have an answer, even now. 19 newsletters isn’t enough, it seems.
But I do think, at least for the time being, I have a pathway forward to focus my thinking, toward which to shine my own light.
It’s never simple, art, art-making, creativity; dreaming it into being can be painful, as, I suppose, more practical, more quotidian dreams deferred can be as well. Though this dream isn’t exactly a thing, is it — neither career, nor job, nor pathway to walk down.
Rather, I’ve come to think, it’s more as a way of walking. As much a pose as a mindset, as much gait as guidance, as much a way of thinking, of feeling, of acting in relation to the world.
Finding what that means to me, now, is itself the art; of trying to live onward
toward creative joy,