When I was in eleventh grade, my high school counselor Mr. Rizzo scheduled a meeting with me to discuss my college and career options. I pictured the two of us having this important conversation in his office, decorated inspiringly with his “Hang in there” poster of a kitten dangling out of a basket and his “Follow your dreams” poster of a mountain climber nearing a summit. I knew what questions he was going to ask. “What kind of life do you see for yourself?” “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I just wasn’t sure how to answer them.
Paint? Sketch? Write? Did I want to do one of these for a living? Could I do one of these? I was sixteen. What did I know? Fortunately, a possibility came to me shortly before my meeting with Mr. Rizzo, a beautiful course of action. I was stricken by the rightness of it—how perfectly it matched me.
I wanted to become Martha Stewart.
Mr. Rizzo was a great counselor, attentive and kind, so I was only a little shy about describing my recent epiphany. It was the result of a PBS holiday special I’d watched, a show that featured this woman I had never seen before—this Martha Stewart. She made wreathes, raised chickens, restored antiques, grew vegetables, prepared elaborate meals, and lavishly entertained friends and family. For all I knew, she painted and wrote, too. She did it all! And that—her varied, fruitful, generous, creative life—was the life I wanted when I grew up.
This was the early nineties, pre-Martha Stewart Living. Martha Stewart wasn’t a household name yet. But she was famous enough for my counselor to have heard of her. He got a good laugh out of my plan for my future and said (I remember this distinctly), “You have to be rich to do what Martha Stewart does for a living.”
And I wasn’t.
Then Mr. Rizzo dug out the SUNY catalog, and we looked at the alphabetized options. I liked to read and write. Maybe I could become a writer…? No. That was almost as farfetched as becoming a Martha Stewart. How about an English teacher? Teaching English involved reading and writing. It was in the ballpark of being a writer, wasn’t it? Kind of?
Out of this catalog, I picked Binghamton, which, at the time, had one of the best English departments in the SUNY system.
What I understand now that I didn’t get then was that Martha Stewart wasn’t making a living tucking lavender into grapevines and selling her wreaths on consignment at local shops and boutiques. Her homemade jams, jellies, and pickles and her homemade nosegays, potpourris, and sachets weren’t selling like hot cakes at craft shows. Eventually, plenty of attractive items would bear her name on their tags, but they were factory creations, mass-produced and widely distributed. Through television programs, like that wondrous PBS holiday special, through pretty products, and through cookbooks, decorating books, lifestyle books, and entertainment books, Martha Stewart was cultivating a brand and growing an empire. Martha Stewart was the brand. The empire, too. Martha Stewart: a fantasy figure, a fairyland.
I did end up becoming an English teacher and taught for many years at a public high school. Twenty-two years after entering the profession, I’m still at it, though now at a community college, and doing, as much as I possibly can, between teaching, parenting, and carving out time for my writing, a bit of this and that. A little pottery. A little baking. A little crafting. A little gardening. A little Martha Stewarting.
I have never lost my Martha Stewart Living longings.
Though that meeting with Mr. Rizzo dampened my spirits, I rallied. In fact, I started hosting dinner parties for my high school girlfriends. My family didn’t have fancy porcelain china, fine silverware, matching glasses, or a lot of money, but we did have fondue sets—three of them. Every dinner party became a feast of cheese, pizza, and chocolate fondues. My friends contributed the dippers—breads, vegetables, fruits, cake, marshmallows—to submerge into the hot sauces. Geeky girls that we were, we had a lot of fun. I felt like a gracious hostess. Maybe I couldn’t be Martha Stewart, but I could be a little like her.
I wonder how many artists are able to support themselves solely by making art. I bet the percentage is low. The arts don’t pay particularly well, and yet pursuing the arts is costly, indeed, especially in terms of time.
I frequently hear creative people say how sad and frustrated they are that their responsibilities get in the way of their creativity. Between childcare, work, and household chores, they don’t have time to pursue their passion. They don’t have the energy. If they were rich, they could quit their job and commit to their creativity. What a luxury that would be!
I agree. It would be.
There’s no clear solution to this quandary. I would never scold, “You have to make time,” or cluck and say, “Listen. It’s all about priorities, and if you have an hour to watch television after work, you have an hour to be creative.” It’s not that easy. During my eleven years of teaching high school English, I never wrote. Never. On the rare evenings I wasn’t correcting essays, planning lessons, or chaperoning events, I usually felt too drained to do more than fall into bed with a book and read. The fact is, I didn’t start writing regularly until after my kids came along and I took on the lighter teaching load at the community college. I’m lucky I have enough time and the right headspace these days to exercise my creativity. Many artistic people aren’t so lucky.
It bothers me to contemplate the would-be artists out there, the would-be poets, painters, dancers, musicians, sculptors, and novelists, who may never realize their potential because they don’t have the resources or time to do so. It bothers me to think of the arts—the arts, of all things!—becoming the domain of the privileged and the arena of the rich, because the privileged and rich have the time to play and enjoy sufficient funds to pay for expensive piano lessons, cover the tuition of expensive MFA programs, and buy expensive pointe shoes, instruments, and oil paints. It bothers me.
And though I think it’s true that deprivation can shape one’s artistic expression, it’s disingenuous to argue that one will always find a way to wrestle free of deprivation’s stranglehold if one just tries hard enough and will discover the means to make an artistic dream a reality if one simply wants it badly enough. Tell that to the artistically gifted kid waiting in line with her mom at the Emergency Assistance Unit, lugging a garbage bag of belongings, and hoping to secure a place in a shelter, where she can sleep on a bed instead of a bench. You got to want it bad, kid. You got to try hard. Hang in there. Follow your dreams.
The elitism inherent in the arts…well, to slightly alter a phrase Martha Stewart coined: It’s not a good thing.