Hand Prints in Caves

As an artist, I’ve struggled for decades trying to define my role in the world – how do I justify my efforts to document what I do, think and feel? It there a value to it? Conceptually, is that determined by how popular you are or how many likes or shares your work generates on social media?

How do you know if your life as an artist has been worthwhile, all mixed up with the need to make a living, possibly support a family, wrestle with your darkest demons, evolve as a spirit, grow in how you interact with others, find meaning in existence itself in a transitory world from which we all must pass?

All of my life I have created things – some material, but mostly music, photographs, writings (both fiction and non-fiction) – and I have developed theories and perspectives about life, the universe, and my place (our place) in it.

And though I have found some degree of satisfaction, I have never found fulfillment for a troubled spirit – until now. I would like to share with you the perspective that has finally brought me peace.

Normally, I’d segue sideways here to go into my childhood dreams of being a famous writer, great composer, or director of amazing movies, but this time it’s different. There’s no need to go into any of that in any greater detail. What is needed is not an in-depth exploration of the problem, but a direct cut to the solution.

So here it is. My work is like those ancient hand prints from tens of thousands of years ago that they found in caves in Europe. Sure, there are drawings of animals and hunting parties, but also simply hand prints, either impressed in paint, or pigment blown around the hand to leave an outline.

And what is the point of those hand prints? Nothing more than to say, “I was here.” They are touch points across time – a connection from the anonymous artist to the anonymous audience – a portal of humanity that ties us together across the millennia.

Because it is anonymous, it is not about identity – at least not the identity of any individual. It is about the identity of our group mind as human beings – one person connecting with another across time.

But that’s not all, nor is it even the heart of it. Though as any child I imagined myself as the hero of my own story, changing the world for the better through what I did or made. As a mature artist, however, I had become frustrated by lack of interest in my work by any significant number of people, followers, subscribers, fans.

I came to feel that my life’s work was meaningless, impotent, and pointless – that I had wasted my life and failed in my quest to make a positive difference, even though motivated by good intentions.

I’ve been told that I shouldn’t think like that. Rather, I should ignore my audience and my ratings and simply create all my art for myself, alone. But that has never felt right. It flies in the face of my desire to leave this world having brought a smile or an insight to our species – to have made things just a little better for others by having been here.

Of late, I had become dejected in my art, and turned my attention to aspects of life that were far more rewarding than what I perceived as a failed career: my children and grandchildren, my journey through life with my soulmate, the simple joy of waking up to one more day, feeling the sun on my face, the wind in my hair, and looking out across a universe of possibilities and miracles.

This was a useful step, but not the final step. What it accomplished was to make me lift up my head and look at all that is wonderful around me, rather than to remain focused trying to ignite interest in my work on social media.

It’s been many, many years since I was all about ego, and I had evolved into taking my pleasure from sharing what I have to offer to those who would enjoy it. And yet, I was still driven. I couldn’t share my work with enough people. Nothing took off. Nothing became viral. And the less I left a mark, the more I hunkered down to try even harder until I completely lost sight of life itself.

I actually felt quite ready for death – this is as much as I was able to do – it failed, but it was a good life with good experiences shared with good people. Good enough. But is wasn’t, really. I couldn’t be.

For whatever reason, I was never able to let go of the desire to makes things better for having been here – to help people with my notions and expressions, be they zany or inspired.

My motivation to do anything at all, waned. I not only didn’t want to create, I didn’t even want to read a book, listen to music, go on a trip, or even watch TV. All of my lifelong interests had become pale, and their drawn had faded into nothing.

I was not depressed. I was not bored. I was simply disinterested: neutral, unmoved.

And that is where I was one week ago when I decided to shut down my entire internet presence. In truth, over the years, I have gotten frustrated and/or burned out by prodigious posting and walked away for a while to recover – basically taking a sabbatical. But this time I new I meant it for good.

And so, one by one I stopped posting on my myriad of pages and websites. I resigned from all the social media groups I had joined. I cut back to nothing but my main page where I connect with family, and ratcheted down my efforts in all remaining areas to one post per day.

And it was liberating. I sat there with nothing to do, no demands upon my time and, being retired, no demands to work or produce at all. And all week I did nothing, I investigated nothing, I created nothing – well, pretty much: I can’t control my own Muse.

It was my hope in doing this that if the bright light of trying to distribute my work were dimmed, in time other interested would emerge from the shadows I couldn’t see while engaged in my zealous pursuits.

And they did come forth. First, I found myself binge watching a streaming video series I had found intriguing but had never taken the time to view. I started spending more time conversing with family members, rather than cutting things short so I could get back to posting my work online. I picked up with a project in the yard I had abandoned during my earlier days of frustration. And, rather than throwing myself into any of these as I had with my artistic efforts, I let them find their own time, often just a few minutes every day.

By the end of the week, I was slightly engaged in a few things in a casual way, but still had not resolved my age-old dilemma of wanting to make a difference – wanting to share my artistic and intellectual endeavors where they could do some good.

Then, just yesterday, I decided to visit my personal blog on my own domain where I had posted quite a bit in the past, but then lost interest a few years ago. I just went to take a look and see what condition it was in – whether I had organized things well enough to leave it be or if it needed a better hierarchy or more pictures in the menus.

What I found was that there were all kinds of categories I had created for the menu of different kinds of endeavors, but they are all like a blog, with the newest entry at the top then proceeding toward the oldest as you scrolled. And some of the categories had hundreds of entries – something nobody would ever want to scroll through – not past the first few.

And so, everything I think of as my best work in every category was lost down in the flow – gems hidden in the stream, unseen, and therefore failing to fulfill my desire to make a positive difference.

I felt lost. My life’s most meaningful work was obscured by my prodigious output.

And then, it struck me: What if I created master pages for each kind of endeavor that highlighted what I felt were my favorite offerings in each category with a link at the bottom to my latest additions to the endless stream?

I tried it. I created a gallery of my favorite photographs I have taken, another of what I feel are my most evocative musical compositions and so on, for every major category of my work. And it was miraculous in its effect upon me.

For the first time ever, the cream of what I created had risen to the surface with all the rest below for those who wish to explore more.

Likely, those who find my work will discover one of my posts from an online search. And once they arrive to see it, they will encounter my menus and perhaps my main page. And if they click on anything, they’ll be greeted with my most powerful material in each gallery, and a link to all the rest.

But what about later, when my domain is no longer paid for after my demise, when social media takes down my pages and videos from lack of activity? Does that mean I will not have made a difference and failed still?

Once, on a hike, Teresa and I stuck a dollar bill on a tree branch in the middle of the forest, just for a lark. We wondered if it would ever be found, and if so, would that person take it, or simply perceive it as the transient act of artistic expression it was intended to be? Or might they add one of their own, or alter it in some way to contribute to the experience for the next traveler?

On the John Muir Trail there is a large boulder, split horizontally. In the distant past, someone arranged a line of pointy rocks along the bottom half so it looks like the teeth of a rock monster opening its mouth. Over the years, it has become famous, and most everyone who passes that point crawls into the mouth to be photographed in the jaws of the Rock Monster.

Who created it in the first place? No one knows. Did others add additional rocks to a few put in by the first artist? Maybe. Have others replace rocks that have fallen out due to weather or animals? Probably. But even if the boulder crashed and closed up and the Rock Monster was no more, It would still live in the hearts and minds of those who had seen it. And they, through their stories and photographs would keep it alive. And so, the positive impact started by the initial artist will continue to ripple out into the world, even decades after it might cease to exist, just as stories from times past regularly surface in social media today.

And that is when I knew what my blog and my other previous work on the internet was all about. It wasn’t to find a following. It wasn’t to preserve my creations forever. It was to make positive ripples in the hearts and minds of people just like me that will continue to bring some good into the world long after the artist and the work have vanished from this earth.

This is my cave, these are my drawings, and this my hand print.

P.S. I see now that everything I put out into the world creates a ripple. And so, with the very first post I ever made, I had already succeeded: something good was moving through the human ether that hadn’t been there before.

It doesn’t matter how much more I did than that as much as having done it in the first place. And so, I need not shortchange the rest of my life by feeling I had not succeeded and keeping myself so focused on producing more until I finally found success. From that first moment, I’ve always had it and never known it.

But this is not limited to my art or only to those who are also artists. Every time we respond to another with kindness or anger and every time we make or do something that causes pleasure or pain, we are creating ripples that will spread forever through all who are directly affected to all who are indirectly affected.

You don’t need to be a maker to have this impact. You only have to be alive. We have no choice as to whether we generate ripples or not – only as to whether we are sending something positive or negative into the world.

And, no matter how much negative energy we may come to realize we have broadcast to others, and even if it is too much to counteract before we pass on, even one final positive ripple before the end will lessen the load we have caused others to bear and make the world a better place than it would have been if we hadn’t made that effort.

There is always time and opportunity to make a difference.