My Vertical and My Horizontal

Yesterday I was lucky enough to sit in on the LINC Creative Communities conference which is being held in Baltimore this year. It was fascinating to see and hear the results and questions of the organizations which have been engaged in work to uplift artists over the past several years in the arts.

As part of the conference, Liz Lerman gave a keynote. I could always listen to Liz for hours, and she prompts so many thoughts. I really admire her ability to connect to her audience personally–she’ll pick up the threads of the conversation the night before and weave them seamlessly into her speech, and into the progression of her thoughts. She’s always building, adapting, and refining. Liz is always operating a grand conversation in which she’s always engaging others.

Yesterday as Liz was covering the concept of hiking the horizontal (which I will loosely describe as the notion of taking your vertical hierarchical assumptions and putting them into a horizontal continuum, thereby not making value judgement but acknowledging the relationships and the spectrum–for more reading, or if you want to see it in Liz’s terms, click here) I had an important insight into my own upbringing.

I’ve been spending a bit of time over the past few weeks thinking about my family and the way I was brought up (all part of my long process of self-initiated and self-administered therapy). Part of this was kicked off by Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (which I loved, and Giti not so much). I have dwelt on the theme which was embodied by the line which in essence was “Mom, Dad, always you are at war within me”. This is not to say my parents fight each other within me, but their two view points, their approaches to life, do. Since my father died nearly seven years ago, our relationship has still continued, although I do most of the talking as I try to think about his responses to my questions and conundrums. I am very grateful that I still have my mother to discuss things with in real time.

I would say that my father had a much more vertical approach to life, and my mother had a more horizontal approach (although they both valued the horizontal and vertical). It’s important for me to “hike the horizontal” with these two approaches to life, and to put them on a spectrum instead of a vertical. One is not better than the other. I view myself as a much more horizontal person. I prefer the sharing of decisions and knowledge. I love collaboration, consensus, and tolerance, etc. I tire of exclusive elitism, am made uncomfortable by extremism, and the assumption many people have of their being right about everything. Although I must confess I love having the right answer, I enjoy even more having thought I had the right answer, but seeing a better answer presented.  How do we grow if we cannot question what we think we know?

At the same time, I am my father’s son. My father was ambitious and achievement driven. He strove for excellence in every single thing he did, and was pretty darn good at everything he put his hand and mind to. Better grades meant you were smarter and more industrious. Better test scores meant you were smarter, and in a way more worthy of his admiration. This is not to say my father didn’t value everyone. He just especially admired intelligence on his vertical hierarchy. I agree it is important to achieve, to be ambitious, to reach the level where you can do the work you’re meant to do. If I hadn’t climbed at all in my life, I’d still be the dishwasher I was at 14, working four and a half hours a day at $5.50 an hour. It is important to strive–to work for quality. It reminds me of an article by Octavio Roca that my sister, Lisa, shared with me called, “In Defense of Elitism“. We must have excellence, especially in the arts.

I think I’ve been living with this tension of my mother and father, this horizontal and vertical, since high school. As I begin to be able to name it, I begin to be grateful to have both within me. By putting them into a horizontal, I am free to use and embrace them each–to integrate both approaches in my life as needed. To both strive for excellence in all that I do, but also to view our complicated world in a manner that is appreciative, critical, and open.

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