Entries Tagged as 'process'

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.

Submerged Path

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wet Prairie Grass

5′ x 6′

On my last two visits to Payne’s Prairie, the path was submerged, and I couldn’t walk as planned.

Sometimes the way forward, however attractive, is temporarily blocked.

This painting may or may not be done. I like it, but it’s flooded with information. I can’t decide if it’s passable or not.

Perhaps I’ll give it space and return. Perhaps then I can paint in a way that clears the path.

But then again, perhaps the painting is finished: Messy, complicated, and temporarily unpassable.

Like it or not, sometimes life is, too.

Ponds

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Pond 3

I woke at 4am today and painted two ponds before my 8:30am yoga class at the beloved Searchlight Yoga. I didn’t use a source photo for these paintings, but I referenced my memory of a man-made pond at a retreat center in Micanopy, FL.

Traditionally, ponds have mystical, meditative connotations, yet man-made ponds strike me as a little too perfect–not entirely trustworthy. Perhaps the same is true of self-reflection. While important, self-reflection has its limits. I can easily over-simplify or distort what I see. Often, I see what I want to see, not what is really there. And besides, can I really know what is there, when the nature of life is transience?

Direct experience–of my body in yoga, of my hand on a brush thick with paint–is something knowable, at least in the moment, and through direct experience, I become more alive. In my current work, I’m trying to bypass my intellect and self-analysis.  This is meditation. I work quickly and spontaneously, with great feeling and little technical knowledge.

These ponds are places of not knowing. Life is full of such places. On the yoga mat and at the easel, I overhear myself thinking, “I don’t know.” Yet I keep showing up and entering these places, and where terror might be, often there is  joy.

Pond6

A Mighty Kindness

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Place in process

Been a week of hard rain in Gainesville, FL. The sun is back today, and I’m in the process of re-purposing this painting I never loved for the sun, the hills, and the trees, which I love again after a hard week and hard rain of my own.

Last night I watched a beautiful movie about grief and love, The Song of the Sea, and later sobbed myself to sleep–waves breaking after recent experiences that touched old, deep, tender places of pain.

In the midst of the sobbing, I felt my heart grow very warm with the sensation of blood rushing back to a sleeping limb. I kept crying, but slowly the tears turned from grief to relief, release, and grace. Perhaps you’ve felt this kind of grace, too, when you were able to re-inhabit a painful place that once overwhelmed you, once left you little choice but to shut down and not feel, but also left you less alive.

This morning, I put on my typical work attire–dark pants, dark shirt, dark shoes. Then, as I headed for the door, I noticed my pink blouse on my dresser. Without a thought, I changed into the blouse, along with a pink sweater, pink earrings, a turquoise necklace, and pale green shoes.

As I pedaled into the office, the sun poured through the trees and  turned the moisture into moving strips of light. For the first time this week, I could see the trees, the sun, feel the hills under my bike. I passed walkers, joggers, folks moving into the day, and found myself smiling without effort, opening my hand in a wave, speaking a “good morning” greeting.

In this place, everyone was my friend.

Especially me.

IMG_7267

Zero Circle

(By Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and mystic; books available here).

Be helpless, dumbfounded,
Unable to say yes or no.
Then a stretcher will come from grace
to gather us up.
We are too dull-eyed to see that beauty.
If we say we can, we’re lying.
If we say No, we don’t see it,
That No will behead us
And shut tight our window onto spirit.
So let us rather not be sure of anything,
Beside ourselves, and only that, so
Miraculous beings come running to help.
Crazed, lying in a zero circle, mute,
We shall be saying finally,
With tremendous eloquence, Lead us.
When we have totally surrendered to that beauty,
We shall be a mighty kindness.

 

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.

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.

Sink and Source

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sink and Source

Millhopper painting in process

Recently I’ve been feeling a little lethargic about painting, and earlier this week, I even heard the dementor voice in my head saying, “Maybe you’re all dried up and won’t ever paint again. Maybe that’s it for you and the painting thing.”

Thankfully, I’ve been reading a lot–from Lynda Barry to Mickey Singer to the Harry Potter series. All these books, the ideas and just spending time in the languaged worlds of other creative people, act as protective aids, so I can see what my mind is doing and step back from it, not buy into its fears and doubts. The truth is, I’ve just needed a little rest and time to gather the courage to show up and take the next risks in my work. When I’m risking, I’m playing. Then the energy just comes; I don’t have to force it, and the work seems sourced by something beyond me.

Really, I’ve found that whether I’m dancing or painting or writing or doing yoga, the trick is to move and create in such a way that I can bypass the mind, which is to say, prison break. I did this last night when I came home from the art opening at the Thomas Center for the wonderful new exhibit curated by artist Anne Gilroy, Beauty and the Beasts. It was late and I was tired (said my mind), but I turned on some music and began.  I lost track of time, and when I fell into bed, the painting was finished. Read More >

Flowering Grasses

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Flowering Grasses

When I started my blog, I’d accumulated years of stories about painting. The posts came easily, as if I was emptying an over-stuffed attic. I didn’t anticipate that eventually the attic would be empty, and the blog would catch up to my life in present-tense.  But that’s what happened, and here I am with the blog on my heals, as insistent as my cat clawing me to be petted. There’s no other way to move forward: If I want to keep the blog, I must draw from what’s happening now.

What’s happening now is that I’m in transition in both life and painting, and these transitions bear the marks of messiness and uncertainty, grasping and letting go, finding balance in the back-and-forth lurch and lull of emergence. Since May, I’ve been setttling into a new rental house and painting in a new studio.  Posts and paintings are coming more slowly, and patience has never been among my virtues.

During this transition, I’ve been painting grasses. I started several grasses paintings just before I moved out of my old house. I loved the old house and didn’t want to leave it; the owners had to sell it and I wasn’t ready to buy. I lived in the house for three months as it sold, showing it to prospective owners and watching as its quirks and kinks were exposed, inspected, and gradually repaired or accepted for what they were.  My friend Emi remarked that this was the first time she’d known me to stay in a situation that required a protracted goodbye, and she was right.  Read More >

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