Greg – the answer to “I Can’t”

“I can’t.” Words that are not allowed in my classroom. But I hear them often. Lately as I have been struggling with letting go (now the song is stuck in our heads) for this class and applying the rules of freedom to my work I am reminded of a personal experience like the stories in this discussion’s topic. So, if you’ll allow me to deviate for a moment, I’ll share the unedited for younger audiences version of a story I share with my students when they “can’t”.

Can’t is a four letter word. Sure, there’s punctuation and it’s a contraction, but that’s beside the point. Saying that you can not do something before it is tried was something that as a child I was educated against. Doing was always possible with learning. The perfect example of this is my friend Greg from my days at MassArt. Greg was a painting student. He was older than me by about four years and another four years behind me in school. He was a brilliant painter, writer, and philosopher. It struck you when you met him because he lacked arms. Not from a tragic accident, he was born with nothing but a small flipper on his right shoulder. When he wore tee shirts in the cold Boston fall mornings, he’d quip, “For me, these are long sleeves.” Years of spinal chord reconstruction and more metal in his back than bone, Greg kept a positive outlook on everything, well most everything. There was an unnerving self-destructive streak in him. Getting high was commonplace, and smoking was a staple (you’ve never seen anything until you’ve seen a man flick a zippo and have a smoke using nothing but his toes). This self destruction as we see it from the outside, was his method of living. “I’ve been poked, prodded, put under and operated on so much, there’s not much more to do to me. I’m already just one big scar. Every doctor has told me I’ll be dead by 42 no matter what, so what the fuck, I’m going to experience everything I can before I go.” Greg once told me over ciders in my dorm room. Watching him live in this manner, live with the freedom of knowing when he will die, it was bizarre. He embraced life. He lived every moment as if it was his last, because it could very well be.

[I’m sitting typing this and holding back a flood of tears as I reminisce and flip through the catalog of my senior year at MassArt realizing I have not spoken to Greg in 17 years.]

Greg painted, he painted me. I have a portrait hanging in my classroom (see attached) that he had painted in 1996. The freedom of the line and stroke he used doing this study was deliberate. It was not because he used his feet and held the brush between his toes, with which he had massive dexterity and power and could support his body weight on one big toe. It was his intention to be with his painting the way he was with his life, free. Free of the societal constructs of what was wrong or right, free of fear as to whether he would be accepted or not (within reason), freedom from the constraints that keep lesser men in solitude, cowering in the shadows, he was free because he knew he could very well be dead. He medically should have been dead. With what life was granted him by the divine closed universe, he made the decision to create beauty. Whether he was in the studio working on a canvas or sitting outside the dorm, pen in toes scrawling poetry in one of hundreds of notebooks he filled with fervency, or rehearsing for a performance piece, Greg lived free. Greg didn’t believe in “can’t” either as a contraction or otherwise. He believed in his own humanity, accepted the circumstances given him by the universe and made his mark on the world. That is why “can’t” is not allowed in my classroom. You can learn, you can accept, you can gain freedom. You see, the only true failure is giving up, and if you give up before you start, you’ve failed to give yourself the freedom life offers. You have given up on living. The more you say you can’t the closer you are to merely existing and leaving only the mark of your grave upon the earth.

I’m wiping my tears away from the keys. I lost touch with Greg and I’ve always regretted that. Perhaps that is why I hold his memory in such high regard. It may be a tainted recollection polished and made brighter by the patina of time and the weathering of my life, but regardless, it is my memory of him. He would be 43 now. If he is still with us physically, I will never know, all of my friends from school have lost him, but we share his memory. The bright spot of his raucous and random life, suffering, pain, paint, words and thought will be carried by as many people as I can tell.

“Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart

Absent thee from felicity awhile,

And in the harsh world draw thy breath in pain,

To tell my story.”

– Hamlet Act 5, Scn. II

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