Entries from January 22nd, 2015

On Uncertainty

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Uncertainty

“When we’re hard on ourselves, it’s because we have a very rigid sense of what we’re supposed to be doing. We run from doubt because we feel we should know. Ironically, people want choice yet are afraid of uncertainty. But the truth is, If there is no doubt, there is no choice.”

Ellen Langer, from On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (p.65)

I’m stuck in this painting. It’s an abstraction of the prairie and not going well. I like certain elements, some of the shapes, mainly, but I know the colors are wrong, and when I consider working on it, I feel uncertain, lost. When I’m home in the studio and a painting is not going well, this lost, uncertain feeling can change the whole quality of my day; I sulk about the house, make more coffee, engage in a little emotional eating, leave my brushes in water too long. I peek back into the studio at the mess on the canvas, and wonder who I think I am, painting. I feel guilty–wasted time, wasted paint, wasted energy. Shouldn’t I be cleaning some river somewhere, or feeding orphans?

Usually, I need to get some distance and perspective, which I’ve been getting this week being back at work, to catch the energy again. Or, I need to do something radical to the canvas, like smear it with magenta stripes, just to break out of my funk and stop taking it all so seriously. What’s the real risk? It’s just a canvas, after all, not my entire life on the line. Yet at that precipice of creation, when I’m lost, I feel my life on the line. To move forward into the unknown, even just on the canvas, I feel I’m risking everything.

It’s helpful for me to pay attention to what I do when I feel uncertain–about an artistic direction, a professional issue, or a personal matter. Life is full of uncertainty, and uncertainty is inherently vulnerable. It’s tempting to deny or avoid experiencing the discomfort of uncertainty, and there are endless ways to distract.

Hanging out with uncertainty is of course an option, too, and perhaps the hardest, though potentially the most fruitful. As Wendell Barry wrote, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” Similarly, the poet David Whyte speaks about sacred terrains of transition–that we need to cultivate an appreciation for times of deep uncertainty, where we are changing profoundly, but the new place hasn’t yet revealed itself. Pema Chodron writes about getting comfortable with uncertainty–trying to keep things loose and open when we’re feeling vulnerable about the unknown. My counseling mentor used to tell me that if I designed my life around feeling comfortable, I wouldn’t have a very interesting or rewarding life. He encouraged me to lean into uncertainty, and to accept the presence of doubt even in my greatest commitments.  “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” he’d ask, and then, “Can you be afraid and do that thing, anyway?”

As a counselor, I sit with people during their times of uncertainty and transition; I try to befriend the part of them that wants to know, but doesn’t know yet, the part that may need to retreat from risk, or venture boldly into it, or wait, uncomfortably, for a clear sense of direction. It’s easier to befriend this place, its discomforts and possibilities, in another than to befriend it in myself.

Painting, or any creative discipline, is a relatively safe way to play out these themes. But the larger arena of life carries the same themes and struggles, with far more at stake. I appreciate the way painting and life feed back into each other, until they become each other’s teachers, and I sit at their feet, watching and taking notes, uncomfortably learning to cultivate patience and acceptance while I wait for a glimpse of my next direction.

Prairie with Lotus

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Prairie with Lotus
40″ x 60″

The prairie is a wild landscape, complex and ever-changing. Lately I’ve been walking it barefoot. These are the shapes and colors it gave me on a recent visit. I don’t know if other people will connect to this painting, but strange as it is, I like it.

The important thing is to keep walking.

The House

Monday, January 5, 2015

The House

There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.

David Whyte

I want to tell you about my house.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I dropped out of my PhD program. I was disillusioned with school and tired of studying. I needed space to think on my own terms, about my future, about my purpose, about whether I needed advanced education for my path. I kept a small caseload of pro bono counseling clients at the local crisis center, and in my spare time I painted, but mostly, I cleaned houses. It was honest work, and it’ll always be my Plan B.

Today I live in a house I used to clean. Back then, it was occupied by the owner’s family: An artist (Dahvi Fradkin Neelis) who painted from home, her professor husband who biked to the university, their young daughter, and Tiny Phyllis, the fat outdoor cat. I had just started painting, and I wasn’t sure if I was a “real” artist or not. Did real artists need degrees in art? Did real counselors get degrees in counseling? Did real house cleaners make art and do therapy? What was real, anyway? The dust on the baseboards, and the feeling of wiping them white again. Cleaning was great for reflection.

The odd thing was, I felt sheepish at the house. I wasn’t sheepish at my other jobs, but unlike the suburban monoliths I cleaned, this was a simple, even frugal house, a house of art, ideas, and love. I could faintly imagine living in the house, painting in it, working from it. I imagined these scenes like I imagined becoming a teacher or a “real” artist. These visions seemed beyond reach, and I tried to dismiss them.

Several months into house cleaning, I was at a monolith when I splashed a proportional amount of toilet water in my face. As I wiped it off, I wondered, is finishing my education really untenable? If I can do toilet water, maybe I can do statistics. Eventually, I returned to school. I kept cleaning houses until I didn’t have the time. I started teaching, which I loved. I bought an easel.

***

The artist called. Her husband had gotten a position in Germany and they were moving away. After that, they were relocating to Canada. She asked for my help repainting the house for the new tenants, and doing a last-time, move-out cleaning. I’d retired my mop but I said yes; I liked her energy, and I liked the house. Together we painted the walls and cleaned and laughed. When we finished, she gave me stacks of unused canvases, fifty or more. As I suffered through statistics, practiced therapy, and complained about quals, I filled them all up.

***

I was almost 32 when I graduated. In the end, I researched and wrote my dissertation on the same issues that led me to drop out. It was a triumph of sorts, but also humbling. Towards the conclusion of school, a friend called and invited me to apply for a crisis-related faculty position at the university. I was working full-time at a community college counseling center, struggling to make ends meet, living in a small apartment, painting as much as I could, and schlepping my laundry to my mom’s. I couldn’t believe I was graduating; it didn’t feel real. I took comfort in the words of a counseling mentor, who at 60 and very successful, told me he sometimes still felt like a big lost kid.

***

I got the position. My salary doubled. My apartment lease came up for renewal. I wanted a washing machine. On a whim, I emailed the artist to ask if the house was for rent. She said she’d just heard from the tenants; they were leaving. One week before I walked across a stadium stage as “doctor,” I moved into the house. The first thing I did was clean it.

***

The house’s owners live in Canada, and they are ready to sell it. I love the house, but I’m not ready to buy one. Like others who have sheltered here, it’s not my permanent place. While I don’t have to vacate for several months, I’m already grieving. In a life marked by change and uncertainty, this house has seen me through a kind of arrival, a kind of recognition. This house was on the other side of a wide and frightening frontier I finally crossed, of childhood, of college, of graduate school, of many mistakes and of risking myself again and again at art, at love, at life, at a path. It knew me before I knew myself, and it waited for me.

I can rent another house. But place, the unmistakable sense of belonging, is a far deeper thing. I am 34. Every morning and evening, I pet and feed Tiny Phyllis, the fat outdoor cat. I ride my bike to the university, where I teach and do counseling. On the weekends, I paint in my studio at the house. When the house gets dirty, I clean it. We know each other’s grit and grime; we are friends like that.

On most days, I like who I am and who I’m becoming. But sometimes, I feel like a big lost kid, and this house, well, it found me. For awhile, it was home.

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