Thursday, June 23, 2016

People Expect You

People expect you to fall
Hit that same old wall
Really they don't want to help at all
They talk behind your back today
Shake their heads and say
"Well, I always knew that the boy
would come to no good anyway"

- Barbara Keith, "Detroit or Buffalo"

* * *

We are prisoners of expectation,  forever holding our tongues or gibbering like monkeys to suit the needs of the room. We modulate ourselves to accommodate what is expected from us in a given situation: you can say this, not that to your employer, you don't ever mention x in front of your mother, avoid politics, sex and religion around your father-in-law, but speak of nothing else with your closest friends. It is all of one piece: the expectations of others shape and determine what we say and do. This is, in itself, unremarkable, for it is how we manage to survive much of our days. What is remarkable is how little we believe we do it. That is someone else's problem. We rarely see it in ourselves or in how we've lived our lives. Yet, I can think of nothing else quite as powerful, insidious and deleterious to the potential to know one's self (and this presumes that that knowledge is the singular task of being alive), as how the expectations of others can define a life–your life, my life, the life of the kid in the room down the hall, the lives of every last one of us making our way, on our way to find out.

People expect you to fall and hit that same old wall because they need you to fall in order to keep their understanding of the world locked in place. Should you "exceed expectations" folks are shocked, just shocked that it could be so. Why? Because patterns and well-defined roles are the grease in the grooves that keeps things moving. To where, no one asks, but move along, go along to get along, we do. God forbid you have a creative bone in your body, it will draw the ire of people who want you to drop it and get a real job, or monetize it - "Honey, making logos and brochures is a kind of art and it pays," or "You should try writing something people will like, a best seller sort of thing, and then you'd have enough money to write whatever you want." Have you noticed that expectations come with a price tag? It is the definitive mode of setting expectations and defining worth. And it cripples those who don't fit neatly into niches. It wears on each who struggle to make art, eat and keep the lights on. It is a scarlet letter, a brand, the mark of Cain among those torn between the expectations of others, the ones they've absorbed from others, and the ones they still have for themselves. Expectations define and over time we adjust our sense of self to accommodate the results.

And that, right there, bubbe, fucks you up.

* * *

What wall do you hit? What is the name of the expectation you fail to reach for others? What is the absolute keeper on your endeavor? How do you sublimate your own desires to fulfill the desires of others? How many bottles of wine does it take to wash that stain out?

We fail ourselves when we fail to be truthful with others.
We fail ourselves when we promise to get back to our work just as soon as there's money in the bank.
We fail ourselves when we believe what others tell us to believe.

Over time you can lose any thread of yourself blistering your heels running in the darkness of others' expectations. But there are magnificent pressures to stay lost: money will be tossed your way, love (just so long as you act the part), a measure of prestige perhaps, a scosh of fame, a local hero, the corner office and a gold watch.

Am I unfair? You bet I am. It is possible to live well and contentedly by meeting the expectations of your parents, spouse, employer and community. No doubt. No doubt. But those folks aren't reading this blog. You are. Those folks aren't like you or me. They are glad for the knowledge they have, while you and I think there is something more to do. Artists, if they are nothing else, are inventors of the possible. They shape chaos, birth form out of nothing and can only do so when they can hear their own hearts splashing inside their chests. Expectation is white noise blotting out that rhythm. You gotta listen, man. You gotta listen for what is calling your name, calling you into action, calling you to set aside worry over any expectation save for the one: the tattoo of your heartbeat calling you back to yourself.

It's hard to open up the door
Like you've done so many times before
Sometimes you think you just can't do it anymore
Take a chance and take a train
Out into the pouring rain
All you've got's your suitcase
full of pain

* * *

Keep this in mind: in 1972 Barbara Keith returned the advance she received for this album. She didn't want to live under the influence of the label. Unsurprisingly, the album hardly sold because it wasn't backed by the company. No matter. She lived up to her own expectations. Should you ever find a copy of the album in a junk shop or antique mall, buy it. Play it if you can, if not, frame it. Place it where you can see it everyday and bend a knee to no one. Listen to what you know to be true and go have a life free of the limits others would place on you.

* * *

I wish you well.


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