In this strange era where the Venn-diagram of creative space, workspace and living space looks like a single worn-out circle, creativity becomes a powerful means of escapism. To me, the word “escapism” carries connotations of playing make-believe during recess in elementary school, my starry-eyed friends and I fabricating entire worlds, galaxies, universes in that blissful half-hour interlude to school’s monotony.
Children are master escapists, but it’s something we seem to outgrow. Why?
Maybe for a lot of us, as we age out of the fantasies of our youth, escapism still seems childish in nature, since we’re increasingly encouraged to orient our lives around the real world and its predictable rhythms. However, as I’m sure you’ve heard too often now, these times are unprecedented. This means that all of us, artists or otherwise, are granted the opportunity of re-discovering escapism in the context of creativity.
In the midst of daily uncertainty and worry, getting away from it all through art becomes, paradoxically, grounding.
(Blog post continued after the full text of Andrew Liu’s The Cat As We’re Leaving.)
The Cat as We’re Leaving
by Andrew Liu
I crouch behind the couch.
Behind the sofa, between curtain
and palm frond. Houseplants everywhere
spread their alien shadows
on trunks and stray clothes.
Out on the street,
the twilight elongates
as luggage is packed,
as orders are barked,
as someone’s vacation home
burns on tv.
Maybe you’ll take me
up in your arms
to whatever weird and weightless city
dominates your strange mind this day.
You and the littler one (still big enough
to carry me), you and the man
who smells like aftershave and nervous
sweat, of both the lion and the cornered mouse.
You throw my toys in the hamper.
You do not think I can open the dryer.
But I’ve been practicing.
Officers arrive. They pound on the door
and you are notified. It’s like
they were always there. Standing
on the front step, a shadow
that won’t go away. A weight
measured out in footprints of ink,
shoes spooning out each sand mound of darkness.
Is it right for me to believe in fate?
What right? Most days
I whine for food, for attention.
I chitter and flick my ears
if given too much or too little.
You spoil me and I deign
to love you back.
Most days I worry about nothing.
Naps, a warm seat,
whether you operate the hum box,
the book of warmth, or the dreaded hose of howling.
I never thought I would ever be so free
as to miss you torturing my toe beans.
With your Chinese interrogation techniques,
with your stupid baby voice.
I have no dignity in this house.
I need you.
As much as I liked to pretend otherwise,
who else was going to play God for me?
Who else was trying to be my world?
I have no dignity in this house.
I just never figured
that neither did you.
The soldiers come. One final time
you are heading out, tears already
salting your cheeks. You pick me up
and put me down. I remember how
you forgot to feed me
anything other than
the sea on your cheeks.
Andrew Liu’s The Cat As We’re Leaving offers a prime example of using creativity with an escapist mindset. Leave your own body for a while and consider the world through the eyes of a housecat, and when you return, your own human experience, which quarantine rendered in sepia tones, might take on a new hue! This is what we’re invited to do from the first stanza of Andrew’s piece, as houseplants suddenly become huge and leering, casting “alien shadows,” far from the benign greenery we’re used to seeing. We are invited to realize how “strange” our minds seem looking from the outside-in, dominated by “strange and weightless” cities. We ask, do cats believe in fate? What do they think of our “baby (voices)?” And what do they think of us? How do they see our moments of weakness?
During quarantine, we’re all always inside -- inside our homes, inside our bubbles, and inside our heads.
Through art, we can transcend physical boundaries and freely explore a world that isn’t beholden to stay-at-home orders, vaccine rollouts, and pandemic politics. Escapism in this sense is not about dodging responsibilities or shirking obligations in favor of some delusional fantasy world; escapism is a way for us to more meaningfully interact with reality during a time when everything we thought we could always count on, everything we took for granted, has been flipped upside-down.
Sure, maybe escapism can be childish, but what better time to channel the child in all of us than now? What better time than now to seize the chance to see the world with fresh, young eyes, be they feline or otherwise? As human beings first, before artists, we are all essential workers in the personal, creative realm, and creativity is the essential work that all of us can engage in during Covid-19. We escape not to get away permanently, but to gain the insight that only another perspective can provide.
It doesn’t take much. Just a question. Pen and pad or digital document optional. What does the cat think as we move to a new house? What worlds can we create in the 30 minutes before the school bell calls us back inside? And how can escapism bring back the color to our reality?