This past weekend in Vallejo, it was warm and sunny. I ventured into the backyard early Sunday morning. As often happens, when I looked around I started seeing things that needed doing and wound up spending most of the day enjoying the weather and creating enjoyable work for myself. Apart from pulling the grass sprouting up around the baby lettuce in the lettuce box, I gathered all sorts of things to use for the holidays. While engaged in this way I was thinking about how much money we spend on things we don’t need and how we overlook what we already have. This is true for each of us, who are all in some way part of some kind of family or group. It’s also true for arts professionals and arts organizations.
In these difficult times, when The Arts feel the pinch like everyone else, we can all survey our territories to determine what we have been overlooking for its usefulness. Money is essentially an invention, to make a system work. But before money there are needs and the means to meet needs directly without any money changing hands at all. Those are not the words that retailers want to hear with the “holiday season” in full gear, but they are words worth remembering when we consider what is most valuable to us. Art came way before money and filled a basic human need before it ever became a commodity.
People once lived in caves and painted the walls and left their hand-prints. When I go into our little backyard, I gather lavender from the bushes and make bundles, cut the wild grass and make bouquets, clean the leaves off the willow branches my husband grumbles about cutting back every year, to make dramatic art in a large vase. I gather up the peppermint gone wild, and the lemon balm, and chives and sage and thyme and the last of the basil, put them in my favorite thrift store plates and leave them out in the living room to dry, and the bathroom too.
I see fruit trees all over Vallejo hanging heavy with fruit that never gets picked. But not at this house. I worked all summer long canning tomatoes, apples, apricots, blackberries and raspberries. My husband’s faithful watering also resulted in a deep freezer full of dark leafy greens, shredded zucchini and pumpkin puree. So, I won’t be buying holiday decorations, spices, greens, pumpkin puree, tomato sauce or jam over the holidays but my family will be eating “good” and we’ll have a great looking table too that the kids will remember helping me to create. The sun felt great in mid-November so I got extra busy doing a few loads of laundry to save a few bucks not using my drier.
I like to think big, but sometimes small is the way to go. I remember reading from a Suze Orman book some simple financial advice for getting out of debt. She advised people to clean their houses and get organized. (I’m paraphrasing here.) While cleaning, put all the loose change that you find in a jar. When you’re done cleaning and organizing you will feel energized. Then, you should take all the change that you found, whether it amounts to a dollar or thirty dollars (you will find something,) and put it down on your biggest debt. Now that always stuck in my head as some very good advice. More than just symbolic, each little payment on a debt reduces the interest on that debt. Making a positive step in the right direction opens the door of possibilities. Probably, if the banks and the auto makers would do some thorough house cleaning, they could eliminate a lot of their own problems themselves. But while I can’t do much about that, I can clean my own house.
It is important for arts advocates to work together for common goals in the arts, to band together just as big business and financial institutions do, to forward our own agenda. But it is just as important to be able to look in the mirror and examine each and every asset that we have no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, before we look outward to ask for something that we can accomplish ourselves with some sweat equity. Maybe it’s time to clean up the files and update our contacts. Maybe it’s time to put a “junk room” to a more productive use. Maybe we can’t do that big production we wanted to do this year without the funding, but what about a scaled down production that we could bring into classrooms to cultivate a future audience? Over time the value of our baby steps is magnified by the ripple effect, when we dip into the everlasting pool of creativity and ingenuity.