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Shambhala Sun | March 2013

Nothing is Wasted

If you use your difficulties to create art, says RUTH OZEKI, it will give them meaning.

When youíre a writer or an artist, nothing is wasted. Even the most painful and difficult situations in life can be recycled into material for a project, and itís the artistís job to be awake, aware, and opportunistic. This attitude might sound a bit cold and calculating, but itís not. Quite the opposite. Art, when it comes from dark and difficult places, gives us a means to fully feel our most powerful human emotions and transform our suffering into something meaningful.

The death of my grandmother was a painful and difficult situation. My mother didnít want to go to Japan for the funeral, so I went instead. I arrived too late for the cremation, but in time for the interment of my grandmotherís remains in our family plot at the temple cemetery. On the morning of the ceremony, my aunt took me into the living room where my grandmotherís urn was waiting. Using a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks, she picked out three or four of my grandmotherís white bones and put them into a small Tupperware container. This she sealed and then handed to me, instructing me to take the bones home to my mother.

This tradition, called honewakeóďdividing the bonesĒóis pretty common in Japan but not in America, and fulfilling my auntís wish was not easy. My mother, while ethnically Japanese, had spent most of her life in the United States. She had no use for these old Japanese customs, and in addition, my relationship with her was strained and difficult at the time. When I called to tell her that I had brought her motherís bones back from Japan and wanted to take them to her, she did not sound happy. So I dropped the subject, and the little Tupperware container ended up on a shelf at the back of my closet. Years passed, and my grandmotherís bones, this skeleton in my closet, began to haunt me. Finally, I decided the only way to deal with the situation was to turn it into an art project.

I made a film called Halving the Bones. I bought a camera and filmed myself and my mother as I finally delivered the bones to her. We talked about our family, our history, my grandmother, and death. During the editing, I continued to interview her and ask her questions, and when I finished, we watched the film together.

This process brought us closer, so much so that later on, when she was diagnosed with Alzheimerís, she agreed to move in with me and my husband and allowed us to take care of her, and then to be with her when she died. I donít think any of this would have been possible if we hadnít made the film together. I realize this was a ridiculously complicated way of dealing with what ought to have been a fairly simple problem. I could have just gone and talked to my mother. We could have gone into family counseling. But that solution never occurred to me.

Later, I started writing novels about the difficult situations in my life. When I was confused about workplace ethics, or sad about the deaths of my parents, or angry about corporate malfeasance, or anxious about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I used the long process of writing stories or novels to sit with my discomfort and investigate it deeply. Iíd ask myself questions: What does this feeling feel like? What kinds of stories am I telling myself? What would that person think or do? What would it feel like to be inside his mind? Her skin? Writing is not unlike meditation in this way. In meditation, you become intimate with your stories in order to see through them and let them go. In writing, you become intimate with your stories in order to let them go, too. But first you must capture them and make them concrete.

Thereís no need to be a professional artist or writer to transform difficult situations into creative work. Poems, or journal writing, or quilts, or collages, or songs need never be made public. They can be utterly private, because in privacy is where the work is done, even for the so-called professional artists. Humans, all of us, are boundlessly creative beings, and as long as we recognize this and give ourselves permission to respond to our difficulties artistically and intuitively, not just medically or practically or rationally, then we can access this way of transforming suffering into something meaningful, which may benefit us all.

Ruth Ozeki is a bestselling novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. Her new novel,
A Tale for the Time Being, will be published in March by Viking.

From the March 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to see more from this issue.

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