Entries from December 18th, 2018

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.

Theme by Blogmilk   Coded by Brandi Bernoskie