Bookends, or, 40s are the new awesome.

First of all: a big announcement: Matt and I, and our kids, Aldara and Jasper, are picking up and moving to France in September, for a year. I have no idea how we’re technically going to achieve this feat, but one way or another, come next fall, we’re all going to be speaking French and eating pain au chocolat every morning (because it’s probably the only way we convince Aldara to come along with us). We’ve long had European ties, and I’ve tried for years to get my brain around how we could possibly move ourselves there for a stretch. I still do not have that particular answer. But we were afforded a kick in the ass by the fact that, after teaching ten years there, SVA has awarded us a sabbatical leave (rarely available outside the tenure system). We’re incredibly grateful for it, both for the vote of confidence it shows, and for the small stipend it will mean while we’re away (we’ll earn half our (not high, definitely part-time) salary while on leave).

There are complications of course, starting with those adorable kiddoes. Aldara will be 4.5 and Jasper 2.5 when we go. We will be plunking them in the French public school system, and hoping for the best. We leave their entire non-parental support system behind: grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and BFFs. It will be wrenching for A, nor will she enjoy the whole everyone-speaks-a-language-that-I-don’t-understand thing.

Then there’s our very nice, large, filled-to-the-gills Brooklyn home. We’ve lived here 10 years, and, though we’re not pack rats, one can tell. I keep thinking things like, when we move, we won’t have our extra Ikea bins in the basement to pull out when we run out of storage upstairs! I’ll miss my collection of paperclips! What will I do without my gardening gloves!? I’ve lived in this house longer than I’ve lived anywhere, and we’ve built it up around us like a cocoon. I can’t doubt it’s we’re ready to hatch, but it’s going to hurt.

I’m nervous about pulling it off, yes. But I won’t undercut how excited I am. In some ways, the difficulty of shifting a fully adult life under full steam to a new track adds to the thrill. We will have been parents almost 5 years, in this house 10 years, teaching at SVA 11 years, in NYC 12 years. It’s more than time, beyond time, for a change.


When I was younger, I disdained New Year’s resolutions and all that crap as sheep-like self-delusion. I still don’t make resolutions (though I read an article lately that made me consider whether I should…), but for the last five years or so, I’ve made increasingly elaborate lists of “goals,” which have lead me to making a more thoughtful review of the past year and projection for the coming one. Here’s what came out of this year’s review.

2011 was a tough year. Matt and I worked non-stop, for very little monetary reward. Everything reached a head in September. We were in the midst of our 5th Best American, finishing our second textbook, extricating ourselves from several other projects that will go nameless, while I  (unexpectedly) started the art on Trish Trash, and were also transitioning Aldara from daycare to pre-kindergarten. It was just a constant stress-fest: There is so much that’s wonderful in our lives, yet so little time and perspective to enjoy it, or even to notice it.

With the decision to move abroad again came an immediate injection of distance, and we realized we were killing ourselves on certain projects for no real reason. We started to carefully pull back, to shed or put various projects to bed, lightening our psychic load. But just as 2011 seemed like it was pulling out of the dumps, two shocking and incredibly sad deaths darkened the end of the year. Suffice it to say, we couldn’t be readier to welcome the symbolic change to a new year.

And not just a new year, but a new phase. In some ways, since I moved to New York in 2000, Matt and I have both been on a single trajectory, establishing ourselves professionally and personally. We moved here from Mexico City in 2000 with the idea that we’d be illustrators (to support our comics), but after a year or so, realized that it’s not really a viable side job. If we continued, comics would become the side job.

Then we began teaching. This has led to all kinds of new paths, from writing textbooks and blogging about comics education, to running workshops and giving talks. But this, too, was meant to support, not supplant, our comics. We took on the series-editorship of the Best American Comics, a gig that, while it means we read some great comics, also entails an unbelievable mountain of administrative work. I started and finished La Perdida, Life Sucks, and a novel, began a script for another comic (Trish Trash) and decided I was so overworked that I really was A-OK with not drawing comics, but only writing.

Meanwhile, we bought our building in 2002, which had been used as an illegal SRO, and showed it. Renovations lasted through 2010 (and there’s always more to do!). We filled it with stuff. We had two kids. We tried to maintain adult friendships and travel and enjoy life. But at some point, the accretion of relationships and imaginary to-dos, and the need to make a living in this stupid-hard art form just overwhelm.

It’s interesting. The last time I remember being able to pull back and really get a sense of perspective on my life was in 1998-99, when we lived in Mexico. That time abroad marked a definitive break with what came before:

I recently did an interview on the Hairpin whose conceit was that we (the interviewer Melissa Locker and I) play music while chatting. Melissa wanted to talk about Artbabe and the 90s. It was a very weird, hard-to-process setup, where little bouncy fisher-price “dj” icons jump up and down while some song plays and you try to think of the next thing to play, and meanwhile you’re supposed to have the presence of mind to type in a chat window. It was disorienting. But in the end, perhaps because of the discombobulation, I ended up thinking quite a lot about the late-ish 90s in the last month or two, and comparing them to the late-ish aughts and early teens.

 

1997 was a killer year. Coming off several years of working random jobs (before landing a developmentally-important one at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and not making much art, 1997 was when things finally clicked into place. I had a great group of friends and spent many many late nights out with them. I produced comics and other artwork more and faster than ever before (I distinctly remember working on a portfolio case made out of sewn-together milk and orange-juice cartons on my kitchen floor at 2 am on a work night, joyful). I started to get a few illustration jobs, so that I was making a little money from art (though I couldn’t imagine how I’d ever be able to make enough to quit my job, or find the time to do more than I was already doing). My work was taking off, too: because of Artbabe, I appeared in every major Chicago newspaper (the Trib, the Sun-Times, the Reader, the New City, the Daily Herald), Chicago Magazine, and on two local TV news programs. I helped run an indy comics convention, went to San Diego and Angoulême, Italy and Africa, Mexico and England, and, bonus, fell in love with Matt. I was living every single second, working my ass off, excited and exhausted.

And then it was time to go. In March of 1998, Matt and I moved to Mexico City. Though difficult and scary, this was the best move I ever made. There’s absolutely nothing like up-and-moving to a country where you don’t even speak the language for giving you perspective on your work and the world. I loved Mexico, loved learning Spanish (it’s like cracking a secret code!), loved the changes it caused in me and my art. I also loved how the low cost of living (being paid for illustration and comics in dollars, and living on pesos) meant that I didn’t have to have a dayjob for the first time since I was 15 years old. It was a definitive break with the life I’d lived in Chicago. Now, art was at the center of what I did every day.

And as art has moved further from what I do every day, the internal pressure to somehow recapture that moment has increased. With our impending move to France, I realize we’re creating very specific, concrete bookends to our Brooklyn period. Not that there won’t be another Brooklyn period after this time away, but the perspective achieveable with time outside your country, your history, your life, is simply not attainable in other ways. Our NEXT Brooklyn period will, I hope, see  the launch of a new phase, which will be about finding out who we are as mature artists, and figuring out how to live that way. I love doing something instinctively and then discovering that there’s a deeper order and reason to it. It just makes me realize that at some level, through the mild panic of the last few years, I must have been doing something right.

Comment

  1. Brian Biggs says:

    Due to everything you describe above, and due to me being able to describe a similar decade of my own, I’ve really missed you guys, living just 100 miles away. Ten years? Urk.
    Well, France. Have fun. Maybe I’ll see you more there than I did in Brooklyn. It was nice to A. Find that you have this blog (via facebook) and B. catch up. Say hi to Matt.

  2. Jessica says:

    thanks, Brian–I know, we miss you too. Just saw that you’ve got a new book out that we have to find. I know Aldara will love it. France isn’t until Sept! Who knows, maybe we’ll see each other before that.

  3. bartbeaty says:

    Just being able to put a post like this together is indicative of how successful you must already have been at escaping from non-productive tasks. France will help immensely in that regard, for all the reasons that you enumerate here.
    I tried a similar stock-taking when I turned forty two years ago. It was useful, but so many of the things I said I wanted to do have been sidetracked by life’s events already. So enjoy the sabbatical – they don’t come around that often!

  4. Jessica says:

    I was too slammed at 40 and 41 to do anything like this, so I’m choosing the very un-round number of 42 to reassess. I only hope I can hang onto whatever I glean for a few years later.

  5. Cheng tju says:

    Was it the same apt when I visited you and Matt in Dec 2000? That’s a lifetime ago. I’ll be in NYC for studies 2013-14. Maybe I’ll see you guys again then.

  6. Eric says:

    I am super impressed and wish you guys the best of luck.

  7. [...] I love everything about this powerful post by Jessica Abel, in which she takes a look back at the last fifteen years of her life upon her and her husband Matt [...]

  8. Jim O. says:

    Congratulations (and good luck!) on the impending move. It’s inspirational; now I have to figure out what it should inspire me to do. Thank you.

  9. Best of luck on your move! Don’t worry, I had neighbors who picked up and moved to France, and the kids learned the language pretty fast– kids are still learning English at your kids’ ages, and English is basically a mash-up of Saxon and French anyway. It’s a lot more intuitive to learn French than you might expect. Besides, there will be lots of comics for them to learn from!

  10. Kimberly says:

    I recently did just what you are describing here, a complete pick up and move across the world to a new country with two small children. And strangely enough, I will be teaching your book La Perdida in the next month-here in our new life in Spain. We also are also teachers from the Chicago area and gave up everything in an attempt to change our lives. I was teaching at an art school, and my husband Spanish at a boarding school on the North Shore. We enrolled our children in Spanish schools and took a leap of faith and although it’s been a challenge, it has been the best decision we could have made. There is nothing better than clearing out the clutter to really get in touch with the things that matter once again to you. And the kids, all they need is you-and the occasional chocolate pâtisserie.

  11. Kristin Johnson says:

    What an inspiring post, Jessica! (I took your week-long class in MN as part of the last Split Rock session. Good to hear from you!)
    It’s great how you took the time to look at these transitional periods of your life and as an artist.
    I had done a semester abroad in college (in Wales) and always thought that was one of the best decisions I had ever made. Glad you guys are taking some time for perspective and making your art come first :) Can’t wait to hear how it goes!

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