Entries Tagged as 'Process'

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.

 

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.

Delayed Gifts

Friday, August 21, 2015

“There is a sympathy outside ourselves that knows, carries, and protects a message sometimes long enough for it to be delivered successfully.”

Annie Rogers, from one of my favorite books, A Shining Affliction

10 years ago, my friend Christy gave me a Koi travel watercolor set. I felt intimidated by watercolors, and I didn’t consider myself an artist.

I didn’t use the gift for a long time.

9 years, actually.

But good friends have a way of knowing what we need before we do, and recently I’ve fallen in love with her gift.

The paints dry quickly in my small square sketchbook. I draw the lines with a Pilot rolling ball pen.

The three items together–paints, pens, and a sketchbook–make a great gift for a friend.

Even if that friend is as dense I am.

Even if that friend is yourself.

Thank you, Christy.

Rock Cairns 1

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. It was necessary to let go.

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 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 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

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.

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.

The Meadow

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Meadow
48 x 72″

The Meadow began as a field. It was supposed to be an untamed, scraggly, even unattractive place. It certainly wasn’t supposed to have flowers. As the painting unfolded, my dad went into the hospital twice, almost dying. My mom suffered a serious fall, and her dear friend was diagnosed with two kinds of cancer. I left a relationship because the love wasn’t mutual, and I learned that the enchanted house I rented for nearly three years would soon be sold. Change everywhere, much of it hard and beyond my control.

As I was close to finishing the field painting, I attended a training in which the participants suggested we put the questions we may or may not have time to discuss in a metaphorical “parking lot.”  The facilitators proposed that we instead call this metaphorical place a meadow, as a meadow is admittedly a nicer place to wait for a ride that may or may not come. We laughed and agreed, and taped a paper to the wall that said “The Meadow.”

We didn’t get around to talking about most of what went into the meadow, but it was a friendly place that filled up throughout the week. I like to imagine our unanswered questions and ideas live on there as unrealized possibilities, creating secret relationships with each other that we’ll never see.

Of all life’s possibilities, only some will take root and grow to fruition. Each time we choose a direction, we eliminate myriad options. As for what takes off and what doesn’t, we only have so much power. We can love, but others may not love us in return. We can hope and plan and wish, we can plant seeds all over a life, but as Thich Nhat Hanh has written, when conditions are insufficient, things do not manifest. In the end, life supports only some of what we want, dream of, hope for. It claims many, many possibilities before they ripen–some before they ever take root.

I returned from the training and approached the field painting. Something wasn’t right. The colors were too sharp and harsh. I wasn’t ready for a field. I needed a way to honor the unanswered questions and false starts of my own life, the near and actual losses of the year, the ways I’d invested myself without a discernible return. I needed a meadow.

The Flowers Are Coming

Monday, December 22, 2014

I couldn’t ignore it: The field needed flowers. The other way–crisp, perfect, clean, and sterile–a green field without flowers–no place I’d want to be. No place to take off my shoes, sweat under the sun, no place for children to run.

So I’m taking the risk and adding flowers. Childish flowers. The flowers I would have wanted to see and paint as a child, the flowers I still want now. Just the outlines first, then the colors. The flowers are coming with their colors.

Last night a friend in his mid-thirties who still snuggles with a teddy bear asked me, “At what age is it creepy to still sleep with a teddy bear?”  “Oh, you’re well past that age, whatever it is,” I laughed, adding, “Can you keep your eye out for a good bear for me?” If it’s never too late for a happy childhood, by all means, sign me up.

My parents loved me, but childhood was still pretty miserable. Poverty and stress and intergenerational trauma will do that to you. Today I’m much happier.  Today I paint places my little girl self would want to visit, teddy bear in one grubby hand, flowers in the other.

The Field (in process)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Field

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”

Rumi

For the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a 4 x 6′ painting of a field. Here’s a picture of it from last week; it has developed a lot since I took this photo and is now almost done.

Why paint a field? Visually, I find them boring and overwhelming–all that information, but little differentiation in form. Too, fields are rarely destinations, especially the tangled fields common in North Central Florida. They exist at the edges of life, with no maintenance, yet somehow sustain themselves. This self-maintaining quality is what drew me to paint a field.

The fields in my imagination are unkempt, scraggly places, where vaguely discernible patterns emerge and recede, and life grows and dies and rises up again without a fuss. When I experience uncertainty and difficulty, it helps me to remember that the field can be a metaphor for living–I can watch and support my life much as the field does–with curiosity, acceptance, and a kind of benevolent detachment for what does and does not naturally sustain itself there.

Awake

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Awake

Awake awhile.

It does not have to be
Forever,
Right now.

Awake, my dear.
Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out into the vast fields of Light
And let it breathe.

–Hafiz, from I Heard God Laughing – Renderings of Hafiz, Daniel Ladinsky

Days go by. I forget to paint. I forget to open my journal and scribble in my soul’s native language. I forget that the walk to work can be as sacred as my partner’s eyes, and the weekdays as filled with wonder as my heart when my nephew says, “I love you.”

This morning, though, a Wednesday and quite early, the sky was filled with plump pink clouds illuminated like floating ships of light. An old woman in office dress and heels scrambled across the street and jumped smiling to the curb as my car passed; instead of our differences, I saw myself in her, if I’m lucky, 40 years from now, still showing up to something meaningful–I hope–and smiling.

Two-and-a-half years into a very full-time job as a psychotherapist to people in significant pain and distress, I’m learning the value of refueling my own reserves, so I can be present for others from a place of groundedness and inspiration. Refueling in a busy work week takes more intentionality than I realized, and has required a commitment to questioning the frantic voice in my head that says there’s not enough time for me; there’s not enough time to be–there’s not even enough time to fully breathe.

Sometimes painting refuels me, but if I’m not careful, painting can become just another way of keeping busy, of producing a product, and of trying to prove myself.  So I have to make space to just doodle, journal, walk, and sit around, which isn’t easy for me to do. Not easy, but simple, and necessary. Paradoxically though, this unstructured time, with no agendas, can actually yield the richest fruit: Contacting life afresh, with its sweetness and profound uncertainties and difficulties. When I’m in that place, open and letting life reach me, I’m listening, I’m watching, I’m awake. Then painting or not painting, working or not working, doing or not doing: I am being.

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