Reaching

Monday, May 6, 2019

Over the years I’ve been so many things, occupied so many different roles and identities, relationships and interests. All have involved a kind of reaching. Reaching outward, upward, inward. Reaching away. Reaching toward. I developed myself through reaching.

At best, reaching is a form of stretching that engenders growth. But reaching can also be distortion, taking shapes that aren’t true. I’ve done my share of both kinds of reaching.

So it is with terrified awe that I get out of bed tonight and pad downstairs to contemplate the upcoming birth of my first and probably only child, who at this moment moves in my belly like a sharp-finned fish poking my ribs.

Fishboy Rowan James is scheduled to arrive in approximately seven weeks. Whenever he arrives, I know that my relationship to reaching will change forever. For almost 40 years, I have done the reaching. Now, Rowan will reach for me.

He will reach for the heart, the breast, and the spoon. His reaching won’t stop there, of course; it will go on and on. I will, I trust, want to reach back, want to meet his needs. I hope my capacity to reach back is as natural and instinctive as the good moms I know are promising it will be.

But even so, I will no longer be organized primarily around my own needs, desires, or whims. I suspect this is what led a counseling colleague, himself a father, to recently pop into my office, congratulate me, and cheerily call parenthood an “ego death.”

***

Already things are changing. Pregnancy has slowed me down in new ways. I haven’t painted much in the past seven months. I take naps on my lunch breaks at work. I get winded walking up small, gradual inclines. I think, I should paint or write a blog entry, and instead, I just sort of lay there on the couch, watching the leaves move in the wind. It’s okay, I am making a human, I remind myself. But then I think, Gosh, if I’m this slow and the baby isn’t here yet, what’s going to happen to my creative drive after he arrives?

What indeed. I do know that when I transition into motherhood, I will have to temporarily suspend my notions of space, boundaries, and clear lines, all of which are the very essence of how I have learned to navigate in the world. Already, right now, my body is Rowan’s body. My attempt at sleep is his swimming pool. And he hasn’t even emerged yet.

I can think about this, but I can’t wrap myself around it, not in the quiet of my newly minted art studio, fresh flowers in a vase and a soft candle burning on my desk. In here I still have a reassuring sense of my space. Of me and mine.

***

Another colleague–a mom–recently told me, “Before I had my baby, I thought it would be my life with baby. After baby, I realized that the baby was my life.”

***

Well anyway.

I can say, at least from here, that I intend to keep counseling, writing, and painting. After all, Carl Jung said that nothing has a greater impact on a child’s psychological development than the unlived life of the parents.

However, when baby comes, I concede I probably won’t reach for the brushes for awhile. Paint brushes, that is. Bottle brushes, those are a different story.

Grace

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

I spent the better part of yesterday morning reading an old journal/sketchbook, one that I started shortly before my husband Thomas and I decided to make a real go for it. The journal included my final ill-fated premarital love attempts, lots of entries about my anguished relationship with alcohol, and anxiety-riddled entries about my capacity for long-term commitment to Thomas.

Usually I don’t read old journals. It’s cringy to encounter older versions of me. Julia Cameron of the infamous Morning Pages in The Artist’s Way advises against it, too. Giving ourselves a space to dump stuff and then move on is an act of grace, and the formula has served me well through decades of personal writing.

I don’t know why I picked up this old sketchbook and started thumbing through the pages–maybe because it was a sketchbook, and I’d forgotten that I’d used it as a journal too. The writings and drawings stop just before the wedding, as if I could no longer narrate the enormity of what I’d gotten myself into. That break in the words, in the careful accounting of fears and doubts and dreams, seems symbolic, whether intended or not. Marriage is a threshold-crossing whose new territory reveals itself slowly. Anything I would have written then, with the full weight of certainty I’m sure, would be questionable now in the light of experience. And that too is a kind of grace.

What I read in those pages was a woman I know well, a woman who had tasted the peace and beauty of belonging to herself but kept losing it, again and again, and looking outside of herself to find home.

I lost myself primarily in two ways–through addiction to alcohol, which dominated my life, and through misguided decisions about men. Each provided a cover for the other; when I was with someone new, I drank from giddy excitement, and when it ended, I drank because I was disappointed and alone. The more I was alone, the more I looked for the next potential spouse, and the more I drank, and on it went.

In the journal were moments of clarity, a week or two where I stopped drinking, stopped dating, and just lived inside myself in a way that fit. But I didn’t know how to stay. I didn’t know how to stay sober, and I didn’t know that in a healthy relationship, I could stay with both myself and the other person.

The woman in the journal kept reaching for something and someone to call home. She wanted ease and connection and safety, and a space to be herself. She wanted to experience enchantment in the ordinary–a fresh tube of paint, a tree losing leaves, the smell of rain, coffee. But the choices she made interfered. The wine wasn’t real enchantment, wasn’t real peace. The adrenaline-soaked romances weren’t real love or connection. She was trying so hard though, so hard. And I’m pleased to say I read her struggle with more compassion than judgement.

This year with Thomas, living at his Dad’s house, has been all about making a home within. In this place that isn’t our forever-home, I finally quit drinking, and discovered that home is as much a place inside as it is an ideal external environment. I’ve seen my husband in a new light too, what he is for me, how his presence and love have provided something stable and solid, the gentle background support to grow in ways I’ve wanted to for many years. And slowly, the enchantment has returned, in the quiet morning hours, the slow bike ride to work in chilly air, the coffee, the turn to each other at the end of our hardest days when we say, “There’s no one I’d rather endure this with than you.”

***

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time worrying about death. My efforts to comfort myself led me to read many books, and books led me to Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, No death, no fear: Comforting wisdom for life. In it, he offered the simple principle, “When conditions are sufficient, things manifest.” I reflect on this as I am now three months pregnant–yes, that’s right, three months pregnant–and our house nears completion, and seven months have passed since my last drink. I reflect on this as I no longer want to run away from my marriage every time things get hard, and I no longer experience intimate relationship as a loss of some vital part of myself.

There’s a pop culture notion that many students I counsel bring in with them, “No one can love you until you love yourself.” I think this is bullshit. I think we need both kinds of love. Sometimes the love another person gives us heals us, helps us learn to love ourselves. Maybe we’ve created a world of false dichotomies. Maybe it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. I both love Thomas and love myself. I am part of a couple and I’m an individual. Home is both inside and outside. I hope to be both a mother and an artist. I both tried hard to get pregnant and it just happened.

***

For now, my studio is all packed up and waiting arrival at its new home. I wake in the night anxious that I’m not painting right now, not creating even though I have some downtime from work. And then I remember, oh wait, I am creating. I’m creating this.

 

 

Notes on recent painting and living

Friday, December 7, 2018

In the past month, I’ve been reading The path of least resistance: Principles for creating what you want to create by Robert Fritz, a composer and organizational consultant who was popular in the eighties. It’s an older book, but the concepts struck me as timeless. Fritz talks about how we tend to limit our creativity (and our lives) by considering the process of how we are going to do something or how we will get there, before we allow ourselves to imagine what we want to create or where we truly want to go. He cites artists of all persuasions who’ve discovered that the secret to life-long creativity is allowing ourselves to think and imagine the results we want to obtain first, and then develop the process to get there.  Using the example of famous inventors, he argues that when we rely only on what we currently know, we can’t create something new.  We must envision what we really want, take an accurate assessment of where we are now, and then head out in the direction of what we want to create. I had this experience when I first started painting. I had no idea what I was doing, but I set out to paint. I learned on the job and the innovations just kept coming.

But for most of this year, I’ve been stuck in a painting rut. I found myself essentially painting the same things in the same ways. Bleh. This takes the joy out of it, and the risk, too. But I didn’t know how to get out of the rut. I told myself that each new painting would be different, but then I’d find myself traveling down the same worn path.

After reading this book, I looked through my photos of Sweetwater Wetlands Park. I’m still drawn to painting it, but the landscape is so complicated I figured any success I’ve had before was just a fluke. Still, I suspended that self-limiting belief and chose a source photo that challenged me.

I decided to start on the painting and figure out how to paint it as I went along, like I did when I was first painting. Here’s how it went:

 

Final painting, 30 x 40″

A few things happened. One, I painted much quickly than I usually do; I completed this piece in just a day. Two, I had a lot of fun. Three, my finished product is a satisfying interpretation (for me, anyway), of the original photo. By focusing on the result I wanted–to create a tribute to these forms I love at Sweetwater–I managed to get out of my own way. My limits (“but I don’t know how to paint water, to shade…”) ceased to be barriers and became interesting challenges when I focused on where I wanted to go.

***

While it’s really cool to experience this in painting, the truth is that this year I’ve encountered plenty of limits, and almost everyone I know at any real depth is also struggling. We see limits every time we look at the news. We watch our hair lines recede and our bellies protrude. We lose people too early and too beloved to be gone forever. The oceans continue to rise, pushing against the limits of our technology and our willingness to adapt. This is not an easy world.

All this led me to reach out to my counseling mentor in an email last week.

“11/27/18

Hi Marshall,

It’s been too long. I still think of you all the time, but today I just wanted to send you a note to say thank you for teaching me that the things in my life most worth having were also going to be hard. I learned this from you when I was struggling to stay in school, and I learned this from you about the challenges of doing good therapy, and knowing myself, and being in a long-term committed relationship. You never trivialized the fact that being adults who take responsibility for our choices in the face of much we can’t control is fucking hard.
I carry this lesson with me in my own life as well as try to validate the hard work I see my clients–college students who are partly still kids–doing. It’s hard being responsible. It’s hard to keep showing up. We must learn to decide which commitments are worth it even when our feelings fluctuate. Truly most things in my life worth having and keeping take work. You never minimized this or suggested there was something wrong with me for finding it hard. You let me know you found a fair bit of it hard as well, and that a good deal of it was worth it to you.
Anyway, thank you for this lesson. I’ll never forget it. You helped me bridge myself from childhood to adulthood. I think I can finally say that at 38, though of course that doesn’t make it easy.
I hope you are well.
Love,
Sara”
***

Speaking of hard, as the year’s end approaches, I find myself in a state of forced patience. My husband Thomas and I have been living with his kind and generous father and brother for the past nine months during our new home construction, and while we’re very grateful to his family, we’re ready to have our own space again. Our contractor tells us any week now, but the closer we get to moving in, the longer a week–even a day–feels.

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors shared a Zen koan with the class that, until recently, always puzzled me. It went something like, “When you’ve gone 90 miles in a 100 mile journey, you’re still only halfway there.” I never freakin’ understood this. The math just didn’t add up. If you’ve gone 90 miles in a 100 mile journey, you’re 90% of the way there, not 50%.  I don’t know if my current flash of insight about this koan is how the wizened ones would see it, but here’s what I’m experiencing as I travel those last 10 miles. Each mile feels enormous. Each moment is a moment where everything is still happening. There’s no speeding this up, no rushing to the finish. It takes the time it takes, and time can stretch like an accordion. In fact, from where I am now, the 90 miles I traveled to get here don’t exist anymore. There’s only the 10 miles, the current mile, the current moment.  Everything is still happening, and anything could happen. I’m still only halfway there.

Pine

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Pine

48 x 48″

These last few weeks I scoured the net for wise, comforting words about the ever unfolding nightmare that is politics these days. Yet everything sounded dull and hollow to my hurting, tired heart.

So I turned to the trees, to the impossibly tall pines, their spiky needles and sharpened cones, their croissant-flaked bark, the way they tower and sway and care not for who is president or on the Supreme Court of the USA.

 

The Year of Waiting

Sunday, September 16, 2018

For my husband Thomas and I, this has been “The Year of Waiting.” We are waiting to take action on our limited fertility options, and we are waiting to move into our new home that’s still under construction.

As I mentioned in my last post, this year of waiting hasn’t been fruitless. I’ve learned what matters most to me even when I lack control over my immediate environment. I’ve continued to paint and write and counsel and teach, all of which are tremendous sources of meaning. And, I’ve committed to taking care of myself in ways I never quite managed to figure out before, the biggest of which is that I finally quit drinking alcohol.

Yesterday I finished this painting of magnolia tree seed pods. I’ve always loved these strange little things, but I think it’s taken the year of waiting to prompt me to paint them as a subject in their own right. All that potential packed in such odd packages, waiting to ripen, waiting to bloom, helps remind me that nature takes its own kind of time, and perhaps I can, too.

Prickly Processes

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Life has been prickly lately, but not without joy.

Four months ago my husband Thomas and I locked the door to our little house in the Pleasant Street neighborhood and handed our keys to the new owners. Then, we drove our last load of stuff to a storage unit and began the work of settling into the spare bedroom at Thomas’s dad’s house, where we’ve been living while our new home, also in the Pleasant Street neighborhood, is under construction.

Thus we have entered a new phase of our relatively new marriage–not only cohabitation but cohabitation with parents. While the adjustment has been challenging in the predictable ways, we’ve grown closer as a couple, and we both appreciate this time with Thomas’s family, who have embraced me more generously than I’d dared hope for.

Perhaps no one knows how truly controlling we are until we’re unable to exercise our typical degree of control, but this has certainly been true for me, and surprise: it’s been good for me.  I’m painting in an exposed part of the house, where people can see what I’m working on. I hadn’t realized just how much I relied on closing my studio door until I didn’t have that luxury. Folks who attend art school learn to create in public and shared spaces, but I never did either one. Though I do find privacy helpful when I’m working on a painting, I’m getting less self-conscious, which is pretty much always a kind of liberation.

What’s also neat about this phase of my life, about this communal living experience, is that I’m discovering what is worth doing regardless of the particulars of my surroundings. I am extremely grateful that Thomas’s dad is letting me use his formal sitting room as a temporary studio, and that I am able to continue painting while living here. Has it impacted my process? Yes. I’m painting simpler work right now, work that delights me but doesn’t necessarily push against my limitations as much as some of my other work. Does that really matter? No, not as long as I keep painting. Art has to be flexible enough to adapt to life’s changes. Sometimes, it’s okay to make simple work. Sometimes, it’s okay to hang out in the kiddie pool, even without kiddies.

Speaking of kiddies, I’ll add that my main prickly challenge right now is not the change in living circumstances but infertility. Thomas and I have been trying to have children for awhile. After several early-term miscarriages, we went to the specialist, who diagnosed me with low ovarian reserve, something no one trying to have children wants to hear. The specialist says I’m running out of eggs and close to being in menopause (at 37, this is difficult news to stomach). Our most viable options are adoption or trying IVF with an egg donor.  We are exploring both possibilities, which involve considerable expense and uncertainty, but life is nothing if not costly and uncertain, and we intend to have children one way or another.

I suppose then that these cactus paintings, which appear simple, have grown out of the last few months of painful and disappointing fertility news. I’m hopeful that Thomas and I will be like cacti, able to grow our family despite challenging conditions. The good news is that, so far anyway, we’re doing okay with it all. I guess in the right relationship, hardships ultimately bring people closer. As a person who has historically struggled to stay in a long-term relationship, I am both pleased and relieved to find myself becoming more committed to our deepening connection and increasingly big (ad)ventures.

 

Sources

Sunday, January 14, 2018

My last couple of aspen paintings were inspired by this photo, taken on a hike with my husband and brother-in-law just outside of Durango, CO last summer.


For a long time the photo intimidated me. So much information! I loved the wildflowers and the darkness at the back of the forest, but the aspen trees were so young, their limbs so delicate, and I usually paint mature aspen, and no grass or ground, just trees, leaves, and sky.

But my work was feeling stale and predictable. I needed to take a risk, to be willing to try and get it wrong, or be surprised by finding a new kind of “right.” First I made this painting. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it grew on me quickly.

Young Aspen, 30 x 40″ (sold)

After I sold the painting, I missed it. I also wondered if that looser more wild way of painting was just a fluke. Some of my previous work has felt that way. No matter how successful the results, I could never reproduce the style. But I had some uninterrupted time on my hands, and I thought I’d give it a try on a larger canvas. I thought I’d try to show some of the depth of the forest, and the way the light was hitting the leaves and the ground. I was scared. Anytime I attempt to capture even some realistic elements of a photo in my paintings, I freak out. The familiar monologue starts up that I don’t have the skill or the training, and I should stick with what I’ve come to know, with what feels safe, and with what predictably sells. Sigh.

Thankfully, that’s no fun, while getting into new territory is. So I gave it a go, and I’m pretty excited about how it came out. So excited, in fact, that the next painting I’m about to start is sourced from an even more intimidating photo–one of Gum Root Swamp at dusk, with water. 

Summer, Durango, CO, 48 x 72″

Aspen Grove

Monday, August 21, 2017

Aspen Grove

48″ x 60″

My husband and I were able to hike in an aspen forest in Colorado during our honeymoon this summer. The leaves were still green but I could easily imagine them turning yellow, shimmering or “quaking,” and falling. When we got back to Gainesville, I painted the aspens.

I’m not sure there’s ever been a more compelling time to consider aspen trees as a meditation on human connection. Aspen groves are actually all one organism, joined underground by elaborate root systems. What appear as distinct forms are in fact individual expressions of a single living creature.

 

6th Street Sycamore

Friday, May 12, 2017

Sixth Street Sycamore

36×36″

I’m on a sycamore tree kick. I’m also trying to keep things loose and expressive lately, and show at least some of my original marks. This presents an ongoing challenge to my perfectionism and the urge to tighten everything up.

At one point I thought this painting was destined for the dumpster, but I pulled it back from the brink. When I paint (or live) too safely, I forget that the disaster moments–and what it takes to recover from them–are actually where the growth and learning occur.

Cypress Swamp

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cypress Swamp

30×40″

My husband and I recently bought road bikes. We’ve been riding the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail as much as we can lately, and it sure is lush out there. Thomas’s bike is significantly fancier than mine, and truth be told, he’s a lot stronger than me, too. This means we ride the first few miles together, and then I tell him to take off ahead of me, an arrangement we both enjoy since solo biking a long paved trail through the woods and cypress swamps is one of the most Zen activities around.

I’ve had this week away from work, which gave me a few glorious uninterrupted mornings to paint. I painted this piece today, a view from the Gainesville-Hawthorne trail that arrests me every time I bike past it.

Theme by Blogmilk   Coded by Brandi Bernoskie