Entries from July 29th, 2015

Paint as Play

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Couple

The Couple

24 x 24″

When I started painting, I was on a mission to recover my capacity for intuition and play. I was a serious child, probably the result of a heavy home life, and I never felt comfortable playing. I grew anxious watching TV, and I didn’t care for dolls, chewing off their rubber fingers when I’d bitten my own nails down to the nubs. I carted home library books too big and too adult for me, and I read all I could about slavery, the Holocaust, the Titanic. These stories captured my imagination because they were real.

Although I started painting to experience play, joy, and intuitive discovery, over time I’ve become more serious about it. For awhile this was fine, but eventually art felt too much like work, like a “should,” like an obligation. I wasn’t painting for me anymore, and it felt heavy.

This summer, I’ve been exploring painting as a source of play again.  I still feel some seriousness in the play, but that’s fine. What’s returned is an ease and humor, and a desire to let the paint lead me as much or more as I lead it.

In a talk on the writing process, Ray Bradbury scolds aspiring writers about writer’s block. He claims that writing is fun, joyful. He asks his audience not to buy into the suffering artist theme. Forget suffering, he argues, “I want you to envy me my joy.”  Bradbury says if you get a creative block, maybe you’ve just lost the thread of play. Maybe you need to pay attention, listen, and go in a different direction. Go where the joy leads you, he urges. Or, as Joseph Campbell famously put it, “Follow your bliss.”

As I reconnect with the source of joy and spontaneous creativity in my painting practice, images come more easily. I overhear my inner critic staging her usual protest, “Oh, that’s too simple, this should be harder. You should be suffering more.”

But I’m not listening; I’m playing.

The Return

Saturday, July 25, 2015

 Overlook

I head up for a week in the Great Smoky Mountains with my nephew Mason, who is almost 10 years old. I’ve rented a cabin that we discover, after our 12-hour drive, is country kitsch: Chock-full of bears holding up hearts inscribed with saccharine sayings.  “What’s the deal with all these bears?” Mason asks.  “I don’t know, it’s beary weird, isn’t it?” I say. He puts his arm around me, looks in my eyes and says, “Don’t worry, Aunts make things bear-able.”

During our week together, we settle into a routine. Early mornings, I have coffee and do yoga while he sleeps. Mid-mornings, we hike. In the afternoons, we swim in a cold clear river, and at dusk, we lounge in our balcony’s hot tub and watch the sun set. As it gets dark, we each take a rocking chair and quietly sketch with pastels and pens. Later, we curl up and talk about life and death. “I don’t want you or anyone I love to die,” he confides. “When I think about death, I get sad.”  “Yes,” I say, “we all die. But this is also what makes our time together very precious and beautiful.”  Mason turns his back to me in the dark and cries softly. I feel my own face wet with tears. I put my hand on his back and say, “I’m sad, too. But you know, when people really love us, we can feel their love even after they die. We get to keep their love inside.”

We drive through a dense forest. I’m thinking about our conversation about death. “You know,” I say, “some cultures and religions believe that we live many lives. We aren’t just here one time, we are born into many different bodies, including animal bodies, until we’ve learned everything we’re supposed to learn about being here. It’s called reincarnation.”

“Hmmm, I think I’ve heard of that,” he says. “What do you think, Aunt Sara? Do you believe it?”

“I don’t know what to believe,” I say. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here before, but mostly I just enjoy the questions. I like wondering about it, more than anything. I like the mystery of it, you know?”

“Yeah,” he says.

Later on the hike, Mason requests that I ask him questions. He likes it when I ask him, “If you could…” questions, like, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”  His answer is, “To live forever.”

I try another question. “If you could come back as anyone, at any time in history, and live their life, who would you want to come back as?”

He gets quiet for a few minutes, thinking.  Then he says, “I bet you know who I’d pick. Take a guess.”

I don’t know. I think of the president, or wealthy people, or famous athletes, but none of these feel right. Then, it hits me. “Yourself?” I say, “you’d want to come back as you?”

“Yep!” he says cheerfully, and offers no further explanation.

I’m deeply touched.

“That’s cool,” I say, when I can find my words again. “You know what, Mason?  Me too.”

Mason is on the edge of pre-adolescence. His body is changing, and each day he speaks with more maturity, but he still retains much of his boyish innocence. Often during our hikes, he slips his smooth little hand in mine. We walk like this for awhile, sometimes miles. Teenage boys and their fathers who are definitely not holding hands cross our path, but Mason doesn’t let go. I wonder if it will ever be like this with him again, which makes our time together precious and beautiful indeed.

Mason sketching

I weave the car down a mountain road, my eyes alight with the scenery, big clouds atop bigger mountains. “Aunt Sara, you’re smiling again. You’re always smiling. Why do you smile so much?” Mason asks.

I am not aware of smiling.

“Because I’m happy,” I answer, realizing it’s true. “I know that life can be difficult, but I love being alive, Mason. I love that I get to be alive.”

We walk the same trails I walked when I was here alone last summer. As we walk, I catch glimpses of who I was last year, when I came to these woods falling deeply in love with the man I was sure I’d marry. Time passed; we parted. I loved him, and perhaps always will, but his heart never opened to reciprocate. Meanwhile, his eyes opened often towards women with bigger breasts, higher heels, shorter skirts, and far more make-up than I wore. It was necessary to let go.

Last summer, I struggled to be present in these woods. I just wanted to return to my lover’s arms and watch our life together unfold. But the path led somewhere else.

This summer, I walk comfortably in my body. I don’t have any romantic prospects or a single pair of high heels, but I’m fiercely in love with myself, these woods, and the ginger-haired boy who walks sometimes ahead of me, sometimes behind, and sometimes with his hand in mine.

The hikers

“This is my favorite part of the path,” Mason says during one of our long hikes to a waterfall. He stops me and gestures to the trees that form a low, dark tunnel over us. “It looks like a wedding,” he says.

I smile. “That’s one wedding I’d want to attend,” I say.

“Walk along, kiddo.” He does, and I take his picture in the dark tunnel of trees.

The Wedding Path

Mason springs up the path ahead of me. I watch his deft feet and wonder who he will become. Highly creative and sensitive, deeply introverted yet a hilarious entertainer, it’s impossible to know from here. Most everything is, in fact. I wonder how he’ll record this summer vacation in memory. I wonder if he’ll return to these memories for comfort, to remember a time when he was really at home in himself and loved so completely. I wonder if he’ll have to lose himself and find himself again, like I did in my painful teenage and young adult years. I think about the people who have helped me get back to myself when I’ve been lost, and wonder if I might be such a person for Mason.

Trees have always done this for me, wrapped me in their green blankets of light until I remembered myself and could open back out to the world. I wonder if I can be a kind of forest for Mason as he grows up, an earthy place he can return to, even just in memories and dreams. In this forest, whoever he is, whoever he becomes, whether he finds himself on or off his path, he can know he is loved just as he is.

These woods, too, tall and verdant with their wide arms above us–we walk and we are held, by branches and leaves, by sticks and legs and careful steps over water, in an improbable world of connections and partings, a world that, just this morning, was declared in Mason’s mom’s Facebook post to be on the edge of total climate collapse.

As we walk, Mason and I make plans to return to these woods each summer, to make it an annual tradition.

I hope we do.

But life is uncertain. Next year, will we both be alive? Will we have the resources and the time and the desire to vacation with each other? We plan to return to the woods, but perhaps what we most want to is to know we can return to a place where we are wholly ourselves, where we belong to and can participate in a sacred world, a world in which we don’t have to question if we are loved. Perhaps this is a place we can return to anytime, always, because we carry it inside.

Green sky

On the drive home to Florida, we don’t talk much. Last year, Mason called me out for making idle conversation just to feel connected to him. Since then, I’ve learned to trust the silences between us, to rest into the connection they hold.

Occasionally we listen to music–Eminem (his choice), Josh Ritter and Krishna Das (mine). We find some common ground with the band Phoenix, and jam out together. While he half-sleeps, I listen to Mickey Singer’s audio version of his new book, The Surrender Experiment. (Mason informs me he “already knows all that stuff,” and perhaps he does.) We also listen to Eleanor and Park, a tender adolescent story of love and loss that a client recommended to me for the drive.

Mostly though, we sit in silence. Time passes. We cover distances. We look at the road and we breathe.

“Ask me some spelling words,” Mason suggests to break the monotony of the drive.

“Fantastic,” I offer.

“Fantastic,” he says. “F-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c.”

“Yes,” I say. “Fantastic.”

Path

 

LOST
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner

One Last Thing

Friday, July 17, 2015

 

The Collector

24 x 48″

I’m packing for a week with my nephew in the mountains. Just the two of us,  no internet access. He’s almost 10, and I doubt he’s ever been separated from a computer for a week. Although my childhood was computer-free, I haven’t been away from the digital world in awhile, either.

So we shall see.

What to bring and what to leave behind? A traveling question, but also one whose answer shapes the quality of my life.

I’m hopeful that I can open myself to the quiet expanse of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Downshift, you know? Let go.

But not before I pack one last thing.

Come

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Gardener

The Gardener, 30 x 48″

When I first started painting, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just showed up. I never knew what I was going to paint: I’d arrive at the easel, and let it come. I made about 60 paintings like this before my mind started interfering with the process, trying to steer me down well-worn paths.  Then paintings took longer and longer to finish, but I was comfortable, I thought. I refined my techniques and the work predictably sold.

But lately I’ve been experimenting with just showing up and not listening to my mental resistance about what and how I’m allowed to paint. I just paint what I have energy for. Inspiration comes mid-stroke, and the painting emerges. People call this the muse: It’s the grand surprise.

I painted “The Gardener” in two days. My mind was saying that I’ve never painted bicycles and I don’t know how.

So what? However imperfect my knowledge or the end result, the painting needed to be made.

This weekend my yoga instructor Betsy read this poem by the Australian poet Andrew Colliver.  Perhaps he says it best when he just says, “Come.”

Come  (by Andrew Colliver)

Every day I am astonished by

how little I know, and discouraged,

obedient as I am to the demand to

know more–always more.

But then there is the slow seep

of light from the day,

and I look to the west where

the hills are darkening,

setting their shoulders to the night,

and the sky peppered with pillows

of mist, their bellies burnt

by the furnace of the sun.

And it is then I notice

the invitation didn’t say, Come

armed with knowledge and a loud voice.

It only said, Come.

Message from Rosemary

Friday, July 10, 2015

I was trying to decide if I should send the check for the trip to Cuba. Traveling has never been my thing. I think of it as a luxury reserved for those with means, and I grew up in a family that lacked such means. A simple day-trip to the beach could and often did end in financial and emotional disaster. To this day, I get heart palpitations when I think about spontaneously going to the springs or the coast, despite the distance that now separates me from my childhood and the relative accessibility of those watery destinations. I’ve only been overseas once ten years ago, and I still feel terrified when I click the “Purchase Now” button on airline tickets to visit dear friends in domestic cities I love. What if the apocalypse strikes just after I purchase the flight?

But I’m working on this. Breathing helps, and relaxing does, too. And perhaps even, a kind of fledgling trust, a willingness to just experience what comes up. If I’m willing to make myself uncomfortable, perhaps my fears and doubts and discomforts will gradually lose their power to inhibit a more expansive relationship with life.

To this end, this summer I have a list on my refrigerator that contains the following items: Do yoga, dance, paint, write, cook, travel.  These are, of course, all things that are good for me. To varying degrees, these activities make me uncomfortable and are easy to avoid.  But I’ve been implementing the list, and in the next two months, provided calamity doesn’t strike, I’m going to the Tennessee mountains, to San Francisco, and to…Cuba.

The Cuban Tropics, to be exact.

But this isn’t really about Cuba.  It’s about Rosemary.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a yoga class at the gym. The practice room was large and smelled of dirty feet and sweat. The sandy floor quickly filled with members, each angling to get their ideal spot in the room, not too close to other people but not so far from the neighboring mats that latecomers could scoot in and take away those extra inches of space.

I’d found a spot by the window, coveted not only for its natural light source in the fading dusk but for its sense of privacy–people surrounded me on only three sides instead of four. Class started, and I settled in for the opening postures, noting the window on my left and the slightly risky open space to my right. It’s too small for another mat, I thought reassuringly, as the door opened several times to admit latecomers who inserted themselves awkwardly in several remaining spaces. Not my space, I thought, and relaxed a little more.

And then I heard it. On my back with my eyes closed: little feet gently walking. Sound coming closer. Closer. Yoga mat unfurling. No! But yes, a presence. Someone on my right. The open space was gone. Damn.

The teacher called us out of our meditation, and we rose to our feet. I looked at my intruder, and she looked up at me. A slight, hunched woman, older than anyone I’d personally seen practicing yoga,  smiled at me with bright, mischievous eyes and whispered “Sorry” with a little shrug of her frail shoulders. I smiled back. I couldn’t help myself. I adored her immediately.

Over the next hour and a half, she moved through difficult postures with the studied grace of a professional dancer, her hands and feet moving like bird wings in slow, intentional flight. I was deeply moved. A number of times the instructor called our attention to the front of the class, where she was demonstrating a pose. The woman on my right shot me apologetic looks for blocking my view.  In fact, I could see around her easily, but I didn’t want to.  She was my teacher.

Class ended and we rolled up our mats. “I really enjoyed practicing with you,” I said, smiling again. She said, “Oh, me too with you, honey,” and touched my arm with her long fingers. “Your practice is beautiful,” I said, feeling clumsy but wanting to tell her how inspired I felt being next to her, seeing her body’s strong elegance in the presence of significant age. “Are you a dancer?” I asked. “A long time ago,” she said, smiling and thanking me graciously.  She was, of course, still dancing.

So moved by this experience, that night I posted about it on Facebook. A friend and fellow yoga practitioner wrote me privately and said, “I think that’s Rosemary you’re talking about.” Apparently, my friend had also connected with this sparkly woman.

The next night, I was running late to yoga. This class, much harder than the previous class, was a 30 minute drive through traffic, and I got unexpectedly delayed. As I anxiously dashed in just before the opening pose, I saw that my usual spot in the back, next to another window, was somehow still open. I ran to it and unrolled my mat, relieved. Then I looked up. Just in front to my left was the old woman. And, to her right, an open space. Not much, but enough. I looked at my window, at the luxurious space around me–my comfort zone. I looked in front of me, at the small but adequate space next to my new friend. Shyly, I nudged my mat into the space beside her. She smiled and moved her mat to make a little more room for me. “Hi,” she said, “what a treat to practice with you again.” At the end of class, I asked her name. “Rosemary, my dear,” she said, “It’s so nice to meet you.”

A few days after these encounters with the woman called Rosemary, I was going back and forth in my head about the Cuba trip. “It’s expensive. Your GI just put you on a restrictive diet. You’re already taking trips. What if your car dies and you really need that money? What if it’s dangerous there? Plus, the planes will be cramped and you’ll have to share a room with a woman you don’t know.”  The other voice simply said, “Cuba.”

I went into my studio and started to paint. By then, I’d written the check and addressed the envelope for the Cuba trip, but I couldn’t bring myself to put in my mailbox. I finished the painting and almost immediately heard the title arise, “Message from Rosemary.”  At first, I didn’t know what the title meant, I just knew that was the painting’s name.

And then, I got it.

I put the check in my mailbox and raised the red flag.

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