I grew up knowing I wanted to be an artist. When I was four, maybe five years old, I recall sitting on the living floor at my parents’ feet and coloring in a Gumby and Pokey coloring book. My mother said something like “Look what a nice job she’s doing,” and in that moment I knew I wanted to be an artist and make pictures that would elicit such uncommon praise.
I spent my entire childhood and adolescence doing three things: sucking my thumb (escaping this world), reading (escaping into other worlds), and drawing with pencils, pastels, or watercolor paints (escaping into dreams of the future). I can say with absolute certainty that my “artworks” were not exceptional or even good. I had no natural talent, although my utter devotion to the idea of being an artist made up for my lack of innate skill. I feel certain that I could have developed as an artist if I’d had any guidance, encouragement, or support.
But wait, says a voice in my ear—your mother noticed your coloring and set you on the path to being an artist. Yes, and she also typed (on a manual typewriter) a short story I wrote about a mother preparing for her soldier son’s return (this was during the war in Vietnam)—smoothing the coverlet on his bed, straightening the books on his nightstand, and dusting every surface of his room, including a newly made space on a wall shelf where, we learn at the story’s end, the flag draping his casket will rest. (I can also say with absolutely certainty that my stories and poems were not exceptional or even very good.) Despite those two acts of kindness, when my high school guidance counselor phoned my parents to recommend me for the school’s new two-year vocational commercial art program, my father was adamant: she will enroll in vocational childcare to prepare for her future role as a wife and mother . . .
Thinking back to that coloring-book memory, I was surely holding either a green crayon or an orange crayon. Why? Because Gumby, a humanlike figure made of clay, was green, and his pony pal Pokey, also made of clay, was orange. Through the magic of stop motion animation, good-natured Gumby and reluctant Pokey shared many adventures between 1957 and 1969. (My adventures at that time included selling my coloring book pages door to door for a whopping five cents apiece). Eventually, Gumby and Pokey were forgotten, as was their creator, Art Clokey, but all three experienced a revival when comedian Eddie Murphy featured Gumby in a series of sketches on Saturday Night Live. Over the years of marrying and mothering and divorcing and making a mess of life (artists will understand the term “mud” and how it might apply here), not to mention my father’s prophecy, my dream of being an artist experienced similar revivals. More precisely, I repeatedly revived my efforts to nurture it. However, in adulthood I have struggled with forming deep and lasting relationships (including my relationship with myself), let alone nurturing these relationships.
Humans can live up to three weeks without food, as long as they have water to drink; without both food and water, they cannot survive for more than four days. Over the decades, my dream of being an artist survived much longer stretches without food or water. If dreams were human, this would be a miracle. But dreams are not human, which makes this sad, and I have cried more about this particular sadness than almost anything else.
But wait, says a voice in my ear—you’re a grown-ass woman and have been a grown-ass woman for many decades, so what’s stopping you? Well, it’s complicated. In fact, there’s an actual condition called “complicated grief,” described as intense, persistent yearning or sadness related to the loss of a close relationship, especially the death of a romantic partner or child. Some mental health professionals say that grief becomes “complicated” if the intense, persistent yearning or sadness goes beyond 12 months. According to the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, complicated grief affects between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s population, and between 7 and 10 percent the world’s bereaved.
Of course, there’s no comparing the death of a dream with the death of a loved one. Or is there? And what if the loved one is oneself? A person can surely feel an intense and persistent yearning or sadness for the death of a long-held dream and for the self that once harbored that dream, a self that did not yet know about the fear, futility, anxiety, indecision, and creative emptiness that rides shotgun in the mind of those who have not been regularly fed and watered (metaphorically speaking) or whose dreams have not been regularly fed and watered. “If dreams are thwarted, then yearning must take their place” wrote Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. And so, I yearn.
Michelle Moore has had poems published in numerous journals, including Commonweal, Black Dirt, Rattle, Cider Press Review, and Apalachee Review. She is also the author of two poetry chapbooks: The Deepest Blue (Rager Media, 2007) and Longing for Lightness: Selected Poetry by Antonia Pozzi Translated from the Italian (Poetry Miscellany Press, 2002).