As I've been writing my book about joy, I've found myself thinking a lot about conversations.
My journey back to joy began with a conversation -- with myself. An honest though searing tete-a-tete in the mirror about all the ways I felt I hadn't lived the life I had hoped to have lived -- and what I needed to do to change that disappointment in myself. About the conversations I had never allowed myself to have and the ways in which I hoped finally to allow myself to have them.
What started as a conversation with myself has expanded into many conversations -- all of which have shaped this journey. In February, when I saw the poet David Whyte speak in Austin, he exhorted all of us at dinner with him to "hold the conversation we were made for", by asking ourselves what conversations we had never allowed ourselves to have. Needless to say, that resonated for me hugely.
Whyte writes and speaks a lot about what he calls the "conversational nature of reality". As someone who often only knows what I feel when I hear the words that describe it come out of my mouth, I love the idea of the conversations we have with ourselves and one another shaping not only our reality, but that of the world.
David Whyte says, "All of us have this inherited conversation inside us which we know is untouchable. It comes from our parents, from our — the way we’re made, and all the rest of it. But that’s an invisible quality inside you. All the visible qualities that take form and structure will have to change in order to keep the conversation real. Just as we go through the different decades of our life, we have to change the structures of our life in order to keep things new, in order to keep our youthfulness. And I do think there is a quality of youthfulness which is appropriate to every decade of our life. It just looks different. We have this fixed idea of youthfulness from our teens or our 20s. But, actually, there’s a form of youthfulness you’re supposed to inhabit when you’re in your 70s or your 80s or your 90s. It’s this sense of imminent surprise, of imminent revelation, except the revelation and the discovery is more magnified. Fiercer, more to do with your mortality and what you’re going to pass on and leave behind you, the shape of your own absence."
My journey back to joy came with the revelation that I had almost lost the quality inside myself that meant the most to me. I knew what it was by feeling it, but the clues came from looking at childhood photos of myself.
In those photos, I am so filled with joy. I could feel the child that i was, and all the ways I had lost what Whyte would call my youthfulness. But as Whyte so wisely understands, we cannot inhabit a fixed idea of past youthfulness, but rather must redefine it for ourselves with each passing decade -- LIVE it -- and in so living it, let that be the legacy we leave behind us -- the "shape of your own absence."
My journey back to joy has been the continuation of my father's legacy of joy -- and way I hope to continue to keep living it forward will be the legacy of these conversations I am finally holding -- and not just through talks like the one I gave this week at the Smithsonian. But in conversations with all of the people I am so privileged to meet on this journey back to joy.
Last Saturday evening, I had a wonderful conversation about museums with the former director of one, who spoke eloquently about the role of the museum in giving people access to seeing art that once had been only accessible to elite collectors. We talked about the ways in which museums create a public conversation about art that transcends so many of the divisions that plague us -- time, space, class, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, privilege, and power. I shared with her how my father, who had started one museum and sat on the boards of so many others, and mother chose to create a museum in East Los Angeles precisely for those reasons -- and all the ways in which their legacy continues today in the conversations created by the Vincent Price Museum at East Los Angeles College.
On Thursday afternoon, I had a series of fascinating exchanges with a group of museum curators at the Smithsonian Museum of American History about the ways in which museums can create a discourse about popular culture in way that allows us to look at our shared history. We talked about the ways in which conversations about popular culture -- sports, films, music, television -- can bridge generations and create common ground across time, space, class, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, privilege, and power. Roddy McDowall once said to me, "Pay attention! Hollywood doesn't know it has a history or the impact that history has. But you pay attention and share your stories -- and so keep that history alive!" With these fascinating individuals who are creating an exhibit about centuries of American popular culture, I shared stories of friends and family who have contributed to our public discourse in ways that, through their courage, their joy, their talents, their wisdom, continue to shape the world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. These curators, in turn, shared their stories about many of the iconic items in their collection -- items which brought huge smiles or great wonder and certainly huge joy to me. What a gift!
On Thursday evening, I had a deep and compelling discussion with the heads of two wildlife and land conservancy organizations about the importance of creating a legacy of land stewardship and wildlife/animal protection for our future. We talked about the idea of legacy as something that allows our individual values, passions, concerns, and loves to be paid forward to future generations so that our planet and all of its inhabitants can continue to thrive -- and so that we can coexist together in a conversation across species -- a conversation that transcends not only time, space, class, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, privilege and power -- but also includes those who or that (plants, trees, flowers, rivers, oceans) cannot speak for themselves. We talked about what the word church means to different people. I shared that for my father it was art whereas for me it is nature -- but that the feeling those places evoked in us was the same. We talked about the importance of continuing to create places where we can share life with others and so preserve and protect our planet.
On Friday evening, I had dinner with a friend at a restaurant in which he became an investor through a conversation on a sidewalk with a chef about food. This friend is an art collector whose joy in collecting makes my whole heart light up. He gives me faith that there are still many many collectors out there who understand that art is never about the "shoulds" that seem to plague so many young collectors -- trying to find a good investment, looking for the next big art world star, or buying the same artists you read about as a "safe bet". Collecting art is an adventure that connects all of us in a conversation that transcends time, space, class, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, privilege and power.
On Saturday afternoon, I had yet another beautiful conversation with a museum archivist about an article she is writing about collecting -- and the ways in which the journey of objects from maker to museum takes them around the globe, bringing them into conversation with people in way that transcend time, space, class, race, gender, religion, sexual preference, privilege, and power. She shared with me that something she had once heard my father say about the importance of regional museums in bringing the conversation about art to everyone across America. He said that he never visited a town in America without visiting its museums. She told me that she had taken that to heart, and does the same now.
So do I. Since childhood, I have been visiting museums and having wonderful conversations about art with my dad. When I was younger, we walked through them together and talked about what we saw. When he traveled, he sent me postcards that shared what he had seen. When I grew old enough to travel on my own, I did the same. And when he grew too weak to travel, he sent me in his stead so I could come back and we could have a conversation about what I had seen. Although he passed away almost 25 years ago, that conversation between us has never stopped.
This week that conversation continued in the sweetest of ways. I made time to go to the National Gallery here in Washington DC, because I really really wanted to spend an hour and a half with my dad. I thought I would share some of what we chatted about with you in this week's podcast along with photos (and short descriptions) of some of what I saw that sparked our conversation.
When I heard David Whyte speak in Austin, he asked us: Why is it so difficult to have the courageous conversation?
There are lots of reasons he suggested and which we have all felt, which often boil down to the fact that it feels easier not to risk yourself, not to feel raw and vulnerable, not to be here fully, be seen, be willing to hurt and be hurt.
Over the past few weeks, I have vowed to myself to continue having the courageous conversations -- to push myself past my comfort zones, to keep speaking my truth -- no matter what it turns out to be. That is often hard, but without it, there can not only be no change, there can be no joy. Whyte says that human beings "are really quite extraordinary in that we can actually refuse to be ourselves. We can get afraid of the way we are. And we can temporarily put a mask over our face and pretend to be somebody else or something else. And the interesting thing is then we can take it another step of virtuosity and forget that we were pretending to be someone else and become the person we were, on the surface, at least, who we were just pretending to be in the first place."
Sometimes my journey back to joy has been exactly this acting "as if". In fact, this week was one of those weeks. August began with a bang -- as in a baseball bat of anxiety, self-loathing, fear, doubt, and sadness over the head. A wallop of an August. But through it all, I kept showing up not only to my practice of joy, but also to these amazing conversations. And through it all, I kept feeling that, no matter how hard the fears might try to batter me, the joy of a shared conversation transcended it all. I owe my father, both of my parents, such immense gratitude for teaching me the power of conversation and the joy of living. And I owe myself the hope of carrying on their legacy and continuing to hold the courageous conversations I am here for. The conversations I am having with all of you -- without whom this would not be a dialogue, but rather a very lonely and not too hopeful monologue. It is in sharing our collective conversations of joy that we find the courage to live the lives we know are inside each of us. This is our legacy together -- as we journey back to the joy that has never left us. Thank you for having this conversation with me!