In Pine Lake. Georgia, where I once lived, there was a lady who nailed a canvas onto the posts of her wooden fence. She painted sorrow with sunshine and flowers. Decay with lilies and moss. Sometimes she painted the occasional sage expression. There was a four-way stop in front of her house so it was impossible not to see the canvas if you lived in the neighborhood.
Each morning, on my way to work, I would crawl to a pause in front of the canvas to see what her art would inspire in me, if anything, or to swallow her words of wisdom like breakfast and digest them as I drove the 30 miles to a job that required nothing of me and inspired even less.
One day, it was this: "We have come to this great place to be fools or to be excellent."
I remember wanting to laugh maniacally some mornings as I thought about that and other times I found myself nodding my head in agreement. So many times, I would see her out on her stoop, drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and I would want to pull over the car and ask her, "Am I a fool or am I excellent? How do I know when I'm not a fool anymore? How will I know when I have achieved excellence?" But then I would look over at her, staring down into the coffee grains at the bottom of her cup, watching the tip of her cigarette burn bright orange as she inhaled, and I knew she was wondering the exact same thing.
Finally, after about a month, she covered it up with something generic about peace, love, and harmony. A saying that slides like drool out of the corner of our mouths while our feet remain firmly planted on the same hard ground we have been harvesting since conception.
I wondered if she had lost her inspiration or if she was just dumbing down her art for the sake of her viewers.
But, then, one morning, a Saturday, I took Elijah for a walk and I stopped in front of her canvas and written there in tiny letters and in almost the exact color of the blue background she had chosen, were these words: "Like sticking a magnetic peace sign on the back of your Prius, it don't mean shit."
I was so relieved. I didn't realize I had been holding my breath until I let it out. I think I even had tears in my eyes. Elijah hiked his leg and pissed on her mailbox (I guess he was relieved, too). It was a beautiful moment.
We walked home and I thought about her canvas. I thought about the way we label ourselves before we step out into the world. From the fabric of our clothes, to the car we drive, to the way we style our hair. All of it - one big flashing neon advertisement to the world about who we are and what we believe in.
And it's all crap. Every single bit of it.
Being vegan doesn't make you hip. Buying organic doesn't make you environmentally aware. Listening to rap music doesn't make you a thug. Wearing tie-dye and following jam bands doesn't make you a hippie. Collecting records and knowing as many unknown musicians as possible doesn't make you eclectic or cool.
We can't subscribe to a culture or a way of life like we subscribe to a magazine or a radio station.
And yet, we try so hard to do just that. We try so hard to grind down and compress the intricate, simple, complex pieces that make us who we are, and who no one else can be, until our brain has been boiled down to flavorless mush; offering it in our outstretched hands to our neighbor, a stranger, the guy on the subway, and all the while it's pouring through the cracks of our fingers until we are left with nothing by days end.
Pretty soon we can't remember the last time we admitted out loud that we actually like Bruce Springsteen (gasp!), or that recycling is really a pain in the ass, and we'd give anything to trade that Prius back in for our gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe.
Shhh! Don't say those things outloud!
Look out the window, kiddies. Here he comes and he's saying, "All Aboard!" The bandwagon conductor is circling the neighborhood and that bitch won't stop until he's got every last one of us on the back of that ride - jammed in like peanut butter between two slices of white bread.
And we're off!
Hey, look! There go the hippies in the VW bus! And over there, it's the thugs raised up in the Escalade! Look at the 'green team,' they're being propelled forward by the fumes produced from their own gas.
No matter how good potato salad claims to be, it's still just potato salad, folks.
As for me, I'm going to slip off my Sperry's (aren't those the latest in footwear?), unplug the toaster from the counter (I heard it was good for the planet), throw on a rap record and vibe (to get in touch with my inner thug), scramble some tofu (no animals were harmed in the packaging of this product)...... and uncork a bottle of red (because I just feel like it).
And I'm only going to have one conversation with myself tonight as the vino slides down my throat, numbing my body and quieting my mind:
Will I continue to be a fool.... or will I be excellent?
After I pass out, then wake back up, I'll let you know the answer.