By Callie Oettinger | Published: April 10, 2015
Two weeks ago I wrote about Dave Danelo’s book The Return and “Exile,” which is to The Return what “Resistance” is to The War of Art.
Last week, Shawn wrote about the “Groucho Marx Syndrome,” of an author spooked by the possibility of success, of actually achieving what he wanted.
This past week, a friend e-mailed about an artist friend of hers, asking for suggestions to help share his work. Upon receiving my ideas she replied with doubt, that she didn’t think he’d go for it. He was an artist and just wanted to create.
The artist Shawn wrote about and the artist friend of a friend have Exile in common. I used to think it Intellectual Snobbery because the reasoning for their actions often rambled along the lines of “only art is pure and I don’t want to be untrue to art, therefore I won’t do anything I deem as below my art,” blah, blah, blah … That might be true for some, but after reading The Return and Shawn’s post, I wonder if Fear and Exile aren’t the driving forces instead.
In the “Exile is Normal” section of The Return, Dave wrote:
Although Exile is particularly acute in returning veterans, it isn’t restricted to them. Exile is the letdown that follows any triumphant, climactic victory. It is the theoretical happily-ever-after that never arrives. It is an enduring, empty frustration that you’ve lost the one skill you knew you possessed; the one life you are trying to move on from, but which you can never go back to. And now you don’t know where you belong.
New mothers call it the baby blues. Freshly minted PhDs call it dissertation depression. Olympic athletes call it medal mourning. Buzz Aldrin, one of the only humans to walk on the moon, described Exile as “the melancholy of all things done.”
“I was petrified of losing the one thing in my mind I was good at,” said British swimmer Cassie Patten, talking about her life after the Olympic Games.
The artist has battled through his work. She’s finished her novel, painted her masterpiece, completed her album. And then what? Then there’s the return from this battle, of coming down from the high of the artist’s accomplishment—or of never returning because it is easier to keep fighting than to move on.
From “Exile Is Refusing to Return,” in The Return:
The veteran in Exile comes back from the war, grows out his hair, and goes to college. She joins a student committee to inflate her ego with war stories and flaunt her status. He signs on to the local police force or fire department not because he cares about protecting society, but because he doesn’t know what else to do. If there’s no heroic end for a veteran—no reason they fought the good fight—then there’s no point in returning in the first place.
There’s a low that follows the fight. If you aren’t fighting, what are you doing? Are you an artist if you aren’t creating? A soldier if you’re not fighting? What are you?
Is the artist delaying his return—of putting himself “out there” after he’s done the work because he’s holding true to the “pure artists” and being stuck up? Or is it Fear and Exile? To be certain, I’m not talking about artists who do outreach here and there, but not all the time because they need the time to work. I’m talking about the many other artists who don’t want to do anything other than their art—or talk about their art with friends and family willing to lend a supportive ear, which will never call bullshit.
I have a college memory, of going to a party with a group of artist friends. It turned into a conversation of who was living on what—just bread and jelly from one, a bag of rice from another . . . It was a contest to see who was the sufferingest artist of them all—though alcohol and pot never seemed to be at a loss. Easier to complain about slogging through life, feeling unappreciated, and turning that into a badge of honor.
From the “Exile Is Fear” section of The Return:
Exile compels the veteran to sit around and fantasize about the good old days in command or in the fight, choking out the future with illusions of the past. Exile traps you there forever—chewing apart your humanity with happy, haunted memories and smothering your soul into empty, stoned oblivion.
Exile is the obvious inspiration for Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused and Rob Lowe’s character in St. Elmo’s Fire — the popular high school/college kid who keeps going back to parties long after graduation. It’s easier to live exiled in the past than face the future. The same is true for other experiences, outside of military veterans and artists. I have a friend who was abused as a child. For years, she let it define her — it was her story, rather than one of her stories. She defined herself as a victim rather than as a survivor, a hero. About two years ago something changed. I don’t know the trigger, but one day she started moving on. New job, secured a loan for a home, and started owning her life rather than giving control to the long-dead relative who stabbed her childhood. It was a fight, but rather than letting an experience anchor her, she turned it into a springboard to inspire her. Think Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. He believed he was destined to die on the battle field, as did generations of relatives before him. And when he didn’t die… He clung to what he thought should have happened. He let it define him, rather than live as one experience in a lifetime of experiences. Once it became an experience, rather than the experience, he left Exile and started on a new adventure.
One more quote from The Return, from the final section “To Make And End.”
I started this book with a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. When I first read the poem, I thought the middle sentence was a typo; that it was supposed to read “to make an end.” In fact, it may have been an error—the quartets have been reprinted in both forms. But through reflecting on the stanza, I discovered a subtle, wise message from the British combat veteran and war poet.
Eliot could have written “end” as a noun. We want our endings to be like this; definite linear things we can hang our hats on. Resolutions. Conclusions. We want our stories to have “the end.” But he also knew humans are constantly making and ending; that the terminus of life’s journey suggests ongoing creations. That “to make and end” are verbs required to resurrect our spirits and grant our souls a new birth of freedom. An ending is a process, not a period. Life is neither a line nor a circle. It is both.
A friend of mine once observed that no person has a single hero’s journey; we are constantly beginning and ending different cycles. In this way, the return from combat is really the commencement of a new adventure; a new challenge; a new level of awareness where mastery in one arena becomes the novice stage of another. The old journey finishes; a new one starts.
When we first come home, Exile’s power suffocates our spirits, blanketing our hopes with hatred of civilian life, anger toward epicurean delights, and fear that we will never fit in again. But awareness of war and peace’s fundamental truths, appreciation of euphoric and tragic dualities, and application of combat’s virtues in routine contexts make us masters of the universal journeys inside our hearts, minds and spirits. Violent demons of death and depression threaten, but vibrant dreams of dynamism and destiny emerge. We engage with the constant struggle to direct combat’s mental and emotional energy toward a civilian life that feels more confusing and chaotic every day.
So as we return, and begin, and make, and end, we feel ourselves growing strong in our center. Like stressed vines making wine, the broken places reinforce our resolve and sweeten our spirits. Combat’s magic and malevolence never leave us, but we draw on the same places inside us as we move ahead, imagining original opportunities for ourselves and those we love.
In 1865, after the Civil War ended, painter Winslow Homer depicted a Union soldier hunched over a wheat harvest. The man was reaping a field with a scythe, turned away from the rifle, bayonet, canteen, and greatcoat which sat behind him on the ground. The scythe in the painting had not been a harvesting tool for decades; Homer painted the tool as a symbol depicting death. The Veteran in a New Field, as the portrait was called, faced away into an unknown future.
When I came back from Iraq, I had not lost a limb or suffered immense brain injury. My jaw gets sore from time to time, but other than that, I’m okay physically. At times I feel the acute confusion, anger and loneliness of Exile, but other than that, I’m okay emotionally. In the decade since I left the Marines, I failed several times at writing, business and life- but those challenges provided lessons that became the grist for future goals.
When I left the Marine Corps, I had an intention to find my farm and plow. And you do too, or else you wouldn’t have read this far. Like the Union soldier in Winslow Homer’s painting and like Odysseus in ancient Homer’s great book, you have made and ended your war.
Now it is your turn. Teach us how to make war meaningful in peace. Show us how to ascend to mastery. The end is where you begin fighting Exile. And we can’t wait to watch you win.
Exile isn’t a one-time battle. It returns, in our art, in our relationships, in every one of life’s experiences. The choice is to stall or evolve, to “make and end.”