To Be of Use: Beyond Making Do

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Tools of Use, Potential and BeautyHere’s a tandem response today: integrating #Reverb10’s Day 13 prompt on “Action,” asking  “What’s your next step?” with my dovetailed thoughts to Tara’s question posed to us: “Why do you make?”

(I am going to put aside for now the fact that when I nannied in 1989, the family used the word “make” as euphemism for pooping, giving that question– when read a certain way– its own imperative answer.)

The ability to “do” more as an artist has much to do with understanding our impulses, I think. I mean, it’s hard to know where I am going  (or what I am DOING!) if I don’t know where I have been.

On Order and Beauty

My mom calls horses “frivolous.” She hollers to be heard. “The Price is Right” is high art for her. She was supremely bored when I took she and Dad to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Mom takes life at its face-value– that’s the math teacher in her. I am often so jealous of this quality it makes me weep. This makes her easy to live with and to love.

Even though there were 6 kids growing up, I don’t remember our house ever being “messy.” My mom was no June Cleaver — she wasn’t interested in the domestic arts, and was too talented at teaching. But she kept a tidy and loving  house.

Now that I have a house, I see her method. The memories I have of a happy house have become my own daily logistical expression of home. It feels good to have things in order. To have as few things as possible to dust and to organize. It’s nice to know that with a quick 10-minute cleanup, all hands on deck, my house — though  maybe not dust-free — would at least be ready to accept almost any guest.

My dad kept his workbench organized too. His tools hung from a peg board or huddled in drawers and boxes. Each had its own home. But my Dad’s workbench was something else. It smelled like oil and sawdust insisted itself on the worktop. The tools held their own kind of potential in them; they shimmered.  It was something that could be unleashed whenever my Dad brought them out to play.

And on the walls and shelves, my Dad kept sweet little pieces of beauty– am outdated calendar of pretty girls, a faded cigar tin filled with assorted nuts and such, a curling postcard, a Christmas ornament. A bubble-lamp night light. A funny little toy the girls at work gave him. For awhile, he kept colorful fish.

And so I kept my own Dutch Masters box of this-and-that when I was a girl. When I was 19, I wanted asked for and got OWN tools for Christmas.

On the flip side, my first big credit card purchase when I bought my house was a Kenmore vacuum from Sears. I have my own clothesline.

I am my mother’s daughter and my father’s daughter. The actions I make are informed by my mother’s sense of world order and my father’s internal insistence on beauty. Both handmade.

Making Do

As an artist, I lose fights with myself often. Internally I am arguing continuously with that  logical organizer, who has taken up environmentalism to further assert her “less is more” cause. I work for an hour, and have to fight to block out the looonnnngggg “To Do” list at my elbow.

And yet, I “make”  everyday, against all calls for better judgment. Against the rational voice chanting in me to get a “real job” and the Puritan round, repeating in song to me to “be of use” in the world.

Making My Own Use

So, yeah I lose fights, but lately I’ve been winning more of them. By dedicating myself to making what I am supposed to make — beautiful writing and poetry, I am not being logical, or classically “useful.” But I argue that bringing beautiful language into conversation is of use. It changes the way we see the world. It changes the way the world see us. It shapes the way we see each other.

Being of use as an artist, to me, means making more and being committed to my craft. And I think that will be how I get beyond making do.

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She teaches and speaks about the rhetorical impact of beautiful writing. A recent transplant to Connecticut, she calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

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