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When Work & Play Are One

Aperture #6 by Epiphanio Alexander. 36″x 48″ Oil impasto on Board with UV Gloss Varnish.

In 1999, I went to visit my mom in Veracruz, Mexico and while there, I recorded some music. At the time, the producer I was working with was also promoting a very unique artist which I had the honor of meeting. His name was Artemio (known as “Artemio con los pies descalzos”) and we hung out a few times.

Without exaggerating, Artemio would have become like the Bob Dylan of Mexico, unfortunately his career was quite short, only a few years …and yet, it was like an explosion: sold-out shows on every venue, tours all throughout Mexico and many other countries, people adored him.

Artemio was real and the most humble man I’ve ever met, he was a genuine troubadour poet. When I met him, he was in his 50’s, always dressed in the traditional “Jarocho” peasant garb and naked feet (con los pies descalzos). He was “uneducated” and had spent his whole life raking leaves, he did other things for work too, but throughout the years this had been his main job.

Here’s some of his music:

Once I asked him how he felt about his new work as an artist. He replied:

“This isn’t work, it’s responsibility.”

He then told me what his work used to consist of and I can only imagine what it must be like to spend 10 to 14 hour shifts raking leaves day in and day out for decades!

…He knew what work is and what it isn’t.

So what is work?, what is play?, what is responsibility? We live in a society were we’ve all traded something for security …and what is the price we’ve paid?

Artemio spent his whole life in poverty up until the point when he was “discovered”, signed a contract and then his dream became a responsibility, one that eventually demanded him to stop being who he was. He loved performing but his contract became an exploitation game trying to turn him into a product, this overwhelmed him, but he was too old for them to manipulate more than once.

People would ask him when will the next album come out and he’d answer in a distant tone, “I don’t know”. He only recorded one album, gradually faded into obscurity and died just like he lived, in poverty.

But Artemio wasn’t a poor man, his wealth was measured in leaves. He used to tell me the leaves had taught him everything that was worth knowing, that he really only had one song, a very long one he’d divided into many and it contained the message from the leaves.

As I recalled my conversations with him, I realized that the “Master of the Leaves” had left a leaf in my heart:

“When you’re doing what you love, you’re not working, you’re playing.”

Now let’s exchange the words for their dictionary definition:

“When you’re doing what you love, you’re not exerting effort directed to produce or accomplish something, you’re performing, exercising recreation.”

In other words: Doing what you love is effortless.

Why is it that children have so much energy and enthusiasm?, Why is it that most people loose these traits or they significantly lessen as they grow up?, What do we give away and in exchange for what?

I believe this civilization is backwards: we “educate” children so they can function properly in our society, when we should instead model our society based on what children know. They already know what’s important in life …to play, and they don’t compromise/give away what’s important for them, couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of them, don’t really need anything else other than love, basic needs and social interaction and most important, they’re fulfilled …and we’re not.

As we grow up immersed in this culture, we are gradually brainwashed into believing that what we already know is useless in “the big bad world”. Besides hormones, I believe this is why teenagers go through so much turmoil. They know that what the “adults” are pushing on them is bullshit, but the system is too strong and at the end almost all fall in line. This is when their glow begins to dim and society welcomes a new worker to join the ranks. Hopefully, they’ll find something they love to do and could live performing rather than working but most of the time that’s not the case.

Now, I don’t believe we shouldn’t teach children, that’s ridiculous; however, I believe that education should be radically different. My views about this are somewhat in alignment with Elon Musk’s approach which he’s already using to educate his own children. He founded a school, it’s called Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) and describes it as without a traditional grade structure and with the goal of catering to students aptitudes using problem-solving methods to teach critical thinking.

So what does it really mean to be an adult?

I believe that being an adult is not being skilled or cunning enough so that you can function or weasel your way through society but when you can be a responsible giver without compromising your integrity.

I think Artemio was a real adult. He was a child at heart, unyielding to his principles and responsible to his commitments. He knew how to work and how to play and he knew the difference, but most important: he was a giver.

Now, because our culture regards achievement as more important than contribution, I believe we’re educating children to become takers, and you can only take so much without giving back before the resources are depleted. Just look at the world today and tell me how is this working out…

I believe that responsibility must be your own choice, but to make these decisions you first have to be able to see all your options and that’s something most people don’t have access to. People are given a menu of what’s possible or real and they have to choose from it. These – I believe – are responsibilities imposed on you rather than chosen.

So I’ve been contemplating on what did Artemio mean by: “This isn’t work, it’s responsibility”, and I think he was referring to certain responsibilities he couldn’t have possibly been aware he was committing to because he was “uneducated” and didn’t know he needed a lawyer to understand the sly terms of the contract before he signed it. So he just pushed through till the contract expired, then like a real adult, took back the reins of his life and resumed his most important and chosen job of doing what he loved: giving …just giving. I guess the “Master of the Leaves” left me one more leaf of wisdom:

“Don’t ever let anyone impose responsibilities on you, choose your own and do give the fruit of your performance but never sell your dreams away.”

And when all is said and done who is to say that leaves, the wind or a sunset over the ocean can’t teach you what’s worth knowing? …Only one who’s never heard them…

-Epiphanio.

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