Postcards From the Margins: Antlers and Work


Vincent Van Gogh's "The Painter on His Way to Work," Arles, July 1888
Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Painter on His Way to Work,” Arles, July 1888

Last week I wrote about growing antlers.  But I don’t think anyone owes them to us. I think we have to grow our own.

Writer-friend Alison McGhee recently posted on her Facebook page  one of her mantras about work as an artist, “repeated whenever necessary”:

“The world owes you nothing. You owe the world your best work.”

For the record, Alison and I have not discussed any further notions of work (or of antlers, for that matter), so what follows are my own thoughts, not outgrowths (!) of hers. And this is what I think:  It may sound harsh at first, that the world owes you nothing, but in the end it is liberating.  If the world owes you nothing, you have to spend zero time validating that you are worth what it owes you.

Grow your own, and no one has anything to say about it.

This notion that the world owes me nothing came to me, first, through my amazing, oh-so-loved and loving mother.  My mother, who had a stroke at age nine, lost her parents (to death) at age twelve and lost her siblings on occasion as well, to placement with other family members. My mother, who “sometimes didn’t know where the next meal was coming from,” who never got a driver’s license, who lived modestly her whole life, who suffered terrible disappointment in the church she gave years of faithful service–this woman taught me, over and over, about what we deserve, about the fallacy that we deserve anything.

My mother grew her own.

Sometimes, she taught me, people don’t get the things (it looks like) they should. Sometimes they do get the things (it looks like) they shouldn’t. We’re not the last word on this, and we’re not necessarily seeing the whole picture. The world is big, and we are very small.

But you can always take a chance on your own best work.

Liberating, again.  Some seasons things might go your way, and some seasons they won’t.  It’s an invitation to make mistakes.  Try stuff.  If you fail, it’s absolutely possible to win next time.  If you win, be sure to thank the gods and the fates (and maybe your mother, too) for your good fortune.

So: no one owes us anything.  Our antlers, big and small, are our own.  And yet, the second part of the mantra above is,  “You owe the world your best work.” If we are not owed, why do we owe? Anything, never mind our “best,” to anybody?

Because here, folks, is grace. My mother taught me this one, too. Grace, the opposite of need, of want, of what you’re supposed to get. Grace: what you’re obliged to give, to other human beings, simply because we exist. Grace: courtesy, decency, respect. How could providing these to each other not be our most important work as human beings?

So stop thinking about what you’re owed.  Go out there and work.  Give what you owe.  Be courteous. Be decent.  Be respectful. And then doctor, lawyer, teach, clerk, sell, make, farm, cook, paint, sing, write and love, really hard.


When the antlers grow, wear them with pride.  And with a keen eye out for the rest of the herd.






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