A few weeks ago I desperately wanted to paint again, but I couldn’t remember how. But it’s been a year since the last time I sit in front of an easel and I wondered if you could forget how to paint.
It’s been one of those perfect puffy cloud days here in Vermont. Storms rolled through a couple days ago followed by another day of soaking rain. In their wake is a landscape so green and lush it fools you into thinking that our “brave little state“ is steeped in opulence.
A little “Appalachian Spring,” I thought, would be the perfect soundtrack to get some hyper saturated trees and skies on canvas. But as the music started to meander, so did the paint and water. The greens and blues started to play with the sun and shadows, and pools, where so much in the woods begins, started to form, and I realized the green isn’t about opulence, it’s about life.
Some people tell me I’m brave.
I hold it together when my kids need me to. I keep my life and job afloat, even when the worst depression at hit, but that’s being strong. It has nothing to do with being brave.
I’ve known ever since I self-published my first short story that I wasn’t brave. I spent months working on that story, with the bulk of the time spent worrying if it would be any good and the next largest chunk of time spent wondering if it would upset anyone of my family who read it.
Writing demands authenticity. It demands courage. When I write about depression, when I write about teaching, authenticity is easy. There are no perceived consequences. When I try to write fiction or about subjects that might step on toes, my keyboard is quiet.
I’ve never found the courage to get around that.
For a few years, I found expression in painting. I paint landscapes because I need to save and share the intense, often simultaneous, feelings of peace and power they generate, the way new converts want to share religious awakening.
Authenticity is easy in that context.
I realized this week, however, that cowardice can seep into every part of your creative life, and that, as much as comparison can smother it.
Knowing that the school year is winding down and my schedule is opening up a bit, I registered for a free abstract painting workshop. The first lesson was two week ago, just after one of my last parent-teacher meetings of the year. I knew I had to re-organize my teaching space to make room for painting, a job that should only take a few hours.
Instead of digging into the filing of papers and clearing off of work spaces, I spent the evening using a design app to rearrange the office/studio. Then I went to bed muttering to myself that the best abstract painters could all draw better than I do anyway. On the night of the second lesson, I checked the workshop’s Facebook group, admiring the efforts of everyone else who had completed the first lesson and knowing that nothing I would’ve done would’ve been nearly as good, I started moving crates of books and desks in the office, wondering if I should be writing instead anyway.
And then I remembered that I often don’t write because I’m afraid to be authentic. I’m afraid of taking a risk and making people uncomfortable. And worse, I’m afraid of just being bad. They were all the same fears that kept painting from happening the first few nights right up until Sunday when lesson planning put cleaning and creativity on the back burner for another 24 hours.
By the fifth night, there were no excuses. My office was a studio again. My progress reports were finished. And the only thing keeping brushes in drawers was a fear that the work would be bad, that people who liked my old art would hate the new art, that people would laugh in my face or behind my back.
But the free course was short, and so is the summer when creativity can be on the front burner. And that is exactly the time to be brave. Or at least, to make a start of it.
The school year is coming to a close, and with it, the end of a period of intense creativity for me. Every day of every week has been filled with creating new PowerPoint‘s or NearPods and with silly real world math problems or virtual, literary field trips around the world.
Part of me can’t wait take a breath and only be focusing on a graduate research project I’ve been working on. The other part of me has been on the verge of (happy) tears all week. Part of it is saying goodbye to students who are moving on to bigger and better things and two teachers I won’t see next year, but the other part sort of came to me in a dream.
In the dream I was making another projectable book for kids his face as I couldn’t see it. The book morphed into a painting. Someone behind me someone was making it clear that I had to paint something or they’d pull the plug on the life support machine that was suddenly there.
I’ve been following along in a Facebook group for a free abstract painting workshop for the last week now, promising myself I’ll get caught up once everything settles down. I wanted to learn how to paint looser, But now, just things are settling down, I find things to do in the garden or around the house, and the painting doesn’t happen. Not even last night when the house was clean and my studio was no longer a digital classic and, for all intensive purposes ready for painting.
When the cat pounced on my bed this morning, jolting me out of my dream, I knew exactly what the dream was demanding. Sure have breakfast, finish your homework later, but the garden and the housework will wait. The only activity today is to make art like your life depends on it.
You would rather paint today, but there are things you know you should be doing.
You should be writing and working on your project, whispers your conscience. But the laptop closed with the last task. If you were really a writer, you would.
Admonishment doesn’t fire up the keyboard. Instead it makes paintbrushes heavy with guilt, and now the screen and canvas are blank. But you tell yourself you should be a writer (that’s what you’re better at) and not an artist, and end up doing nothing.
And — as Oscar Wilde warned becomes of people who exhaust their lives chasing identity instead of living in the moment – you become static, nothing.
You feel nothing until even doing the wrong thing is better than being nothing at all. And, even though you should be this thing and not that, you pick up that piece of paper, feed it into the ancient typewriter, and, for the moment, focus on doing rather than being.
Your cat, of course, is completely happy being a cat.
I’ve been sending out resumes for weeks, but today was the first morning in weeks that I set an alarm. Job searching is rolling a rock up almost to the top of the hill each day just to watch it crash into a ravine as the sun sets. It’s a slow-drip infusion of limbo, and last night, as the first hint of fall air blew through the window I realized that anesthetic has had me sleepwalking through the summer.
But summer is almost over, and it’s time to pull out the IV and fight back.
For most of my creative life, I’ve been refereeing a tug of war between my writer side and my artist side. Last night, as I began thinking about the best plan of attack, that tug of war — fed by the knowledge that I can’t serve two masters — threatened to become a quagmire.
I sat trying to choose between two passions until I looked at my empty calendar for the next day and realized that the only master I should be serving is creativity. There may be many fronts — writing, gardening or painting – but the battle is for the creative life.
Before I went to bed last night, I made two dates for today. The first, as soon as the sun and mountain mists would be moving, was with Mt Equinox and a canvas. The second was with my blog and the short story folder on my laptop. By the time the alarm went off and my easel was packed, limbo was in full retreat.
I was already stressed by the time we got to the checkout line yesterday.
It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that both boys and I had been to a store together, and standing in line made the afternoon feel like a holiday. We chatted with another middle-aged mom and a younger mom carrying a 6-month-old in a snuggly. The mundanity started to soothe away the anxieties wrought by a frustrated job search, financial worries, and waiting for further news of my mother who was in the hospital two states away.
The summer has been filled with the same stress that millions of people are feeling — job searching, isolation, illness, and, this year, a void.
Circumstance has tied my life in knots, strangling my creative life. My garden has been a practical canvas of sorts, but, for most of July, my easels and my laptop (except during job searching) have been closed. Lung pain made painting physically impossible for most of the spring and early summer, but lately a different pain has kept me from writing or painting.
Mania makes me powerful as it burns out unpleasant details, but my depressions throw them into sharp relief with every disgusting reality glaring back at me. I see our planet melting. I see the powerful sacrificing the weak on the alters of profit, making me wonder if any lives — especially those as trivial as my own – matter. The clarity is painful, and the pain feeds on and expands my void.
Thing1 and Thing2 were waving at the 6 month old who seemed fascinated by their brotherly banter. Above their masks, I could see the other mothers smile. Covid-related cleaning extended the wait, but everyone seemed to recognize the preciousness of this bit of normal.
Shouting from the cell phone section a few hundred feet away shattered the normal.
At first we thought someone was arguing over masks, but Thing1 and Thing2, towering over the shelves in the checkout aisle, reported an argument between a group of shoppers and a manager. A thud echoed through the store as someone threw something, and four men, one of them carrying a well-stuffed black garbage bag, ran toward the exit near the cash registers. Someone yelled to call 911 as a manager yelled at his employees to lock the doors.
Realizing we were witnessing a robbery, I tried to maneuver my kids behind me and looked for the younger mom who was also looking for a place to escape or hide her baby. Thing1 and Thing2 have never witnessed or survived an armed robbery. I have. Knowing the prevalence of guns in this country and not caring how many phones or electronics might be in that garbage bag, I held my breath as the fleeing men got closer to the doors and the registers and prayed the employees wouldn’t be able to lock the doors.
The men and the garbage bag barreled through the doors before the employees were able to force them closed. Cashiers returned to cashing people out as supervisors called 911 and tried to get descriptions. I asked the boys and the other mother if they were ok and noticed my own hand was shaking as I retrieved my credit card from the card reader.
We left, and the boys focused on burgers more than burglary. Adrenaline got me to the take-out place safely, but it also became a filter. Sometimes a story on the news will trigger a flashback to another robbery twenty-eight years ago when, lying face down on a beer-soaked carpet, I wondered if our assailants would shoot us in the head or the back before they left with our valuables. I’ll feel damp and my limbs will go numb, but, as I sat in the car, watching my kids eat and goof off, trading inappropriate jokes, I stayed with them. I stayed in the now.
New blog post ideas started popping into my head. As I started the drive home, I noticed, for the first time all summer, the layers of green and gold and white in the landscape. Suddenly the landscape – and life – didn’t seem trivial.
I’ve navigated my depressions for years using cognitive lifelines, but responsibility to my kids, rather than creativity, is usually the first one I grab. Yesterday, our trip through the ordinary and the newsworthy knit those lines together and gave me a stronger way out of this depression.
So here I am in the backyard, shooting flowers again, wondering where my creative life is going. It might look like I’ve come full circle, but, when I look closer, my loop has the twists of a Möbius band.
Fifteen years ago, wanting a creative career, I ran a wedding photography business. I sucked at up-selling, so I also delivered papers and did a little freelance programming, all the while looking for that ‘real’ job. We went to the local art museums on their free family days, but for the most past, art was relegated to the back seat, and the back seat was getting pretty cluttered with empty newspaper boxes, bills and booster seats.
I was still searching and scrambling when I bumped into a friend at potluck picnic.
“How’s your photography going?” she asked.
I had been hoping she wouldn’t ask. An established documentary photographer, she had been encouraging when I’d first picked up a camera, and I was embarrassed that it had fallen by the wayside.
“I haven’t had time to do much,” I said as then two-year-old Thing2 hung on my arm. I pulled out the one-handed point-and-shoot that I was using most of the time. “I’ve been working a few jobs, but I just don’t have time to do anything except when the kids are in bed. The only thing I do anymore is write and draw and shoot flowers.” Then I joked, “Don’t they say your creative life is over when you start shooting flowers?”
“Not so,” answered my friend, and she introduced me to Imogen Cunningham.
Born in 1883, Imogen Cunningham studied chemistry at the University of Washington, photographing plants for the botany department to finance her tuition. She went to work for a portrait photographer after college and then traveled to Germany to study photographic processes. When she returned to the states., she set up her own studio. Her portraits and other work had established her as an artist by the time she became a mother.
At that time, even in America, her quest for education, career and artistic fulfillment weren’t commonplace for most young women in that era, so I was surprised to learn that, after all that struggled, she followed the more traditional route of being what we now call a stay-at-home-mom. I wondered if there was even a choice for her.
But art was not a choice for her.
Responsible for three boys, Cunningham used her camera to focus her attention on her offspring as well as her garden. Her botanical images from this period of her life won her lasting acclaim. Far from signaling the death of her artistic career, Imogen’s botanical photographs made in the throes of motherhood confirm that an artist can bloom in the face of responsibility. It just required some really good naptime coordination.
My boys are long past the nap time stage, but ‘real life’ and the creative life duel constantly. My unexpected, enforced sabbatical seemed like the perfect opportunity to breathe new my painting and writing life, but revivals can have unexpected results. When the intense intellectual and emotional challenges of working in Special Education receded, there was suddenly space to mediate. My writing life, more recently relegated to the sidelines, came roaring back, routing me from my bed early in the mornings. Painting moved to the back shelf, and a blog that was almost 100% illustrated or painted for over six years began relying on photographs to support the writing.
The painting will never disappear, but the need to write online and off and to produce images in minutes, rather than hours or days, hasn’t killed creativity. It’s re-opened an old, almost forgotten path to it.
So I come back to Imogen and her work. It continues to resonate with me because of its beauty but also because of what it embodies. She was a mother. She was a housewife, and she was still making a creative life for herself. And, sitting under the apple tree, my camera trained on a blossom until one of the swarming bees comes to kiss it awake, I know that photographing flowers is the opposite of a creative life ending.
It’s just begun.
Yesterday I went to the hospital for more bloodwork, including a coronavirus antibody test. Pain in my chest and lungs still keeps me mostly sedentary, with the exception of our daily walk. Even though I walk only a few additional feet traveling between my bedroom, study and living room, but it feels as if those minimal footsteps have, over the last month and a half, added up to a journey far longer than a thousand miles.
Not long after I started this blog as part of a writing workshop, I began feeling, more than ever, as if I had missed my calling. I had tried to quell my financially unviable passion many times over the years, but, reviving another creative passion for drawing, more than ever, made my day job feel more like just a paycheck than the career I should have made for myself.
I searched for jobs that allowed more time for creativity, and, with teaching, that may come partially true in the summers (the teaching workday does not end when the kids go home). Guiltily, a part of me still hoped for finances and time to align long enough to devote most of the day to writing and art.
This disease enforced isolation is no vacation, but I have tried to use it as a sabbatical — a time to ask, if time allowed, what I would really want to do with my life.
I did write on my blog more frequently at first. Daily monotony threatened to flatten inspiration, but I knew a writing life is about showing up.
My chest and lungs make painting painful, so I signed up for an online drawing class. Wanting some structure and to develop my written craft, I signed up for an online fiction workshop. It’s impossible to serve two masters equally, and this was a chance to hone skills and discover which passion burned brightest.
Psychologists are saying now isn’t the time to worry about learning new skills. Civilization is experiencing massive trauma as hundreds of thousands die and millions lose their livelihoods. Working with children recovering from trauma, I have seen how trauma — even more than poverty – causes catastrophic disruptions to learning. Even thirteen-year-old Thing2, mostly estranged from any trauma in his short life, is withdrawn and, for the first time ever, unenthusiastic about school and learning.
Drawing class was everything I hoped art school might have been. Deliberate drawing practice. Assignments I knew would improve my painting when the f-ing pneumonia (that is officially the new technical term for it) recedes.
The fiction class was more difficult to dig into. I read the bios of the other students and took 2 days to write mine. There were Ph.D.s and young, bold recent college grads with much better handles on the craft of fiction.
Then I opened the first lecture. Much of the it was a review of the elements of fiction I teach in school. Then I saw the first assignment – spin a story out of a snippet of conversation from the last week.
I mean, the only conversations I’d had were, “Hey,” with the kids when they woke up and “What should we do for dinner?” I can make a silly post out of those, but a story? And, did I mention, I suck at plotting? Could we start with something easier?
I was scratching my unwashed head when I heard gunshots from the other side of the mountain. It turned out to be a neighbor scaring off a coyote. It was also the most original conversation I’d heard all week. I wrote my story in less than an hour and received enthusiastic feedback from the instructor.
I stopped worrying about the better writers in the class and focused on craft. It wasn’t an entirely new body of knowledge, it was a different way of approaching it, and the approach recharged my writing life. Every day since, I’ve dashed off a blog post, read and then written a short story, many of which, I hope, won’t end up in a drawer. I’ve even returned to old duds to give them better lives. The work and time have become my sabbatical and, though I doubt I’ll ever stop painting, helped me focus on my true passion.
My lungs will improve, and either from home or at a school, I will be teaching again in the near future. I have, however, already begun planning how to fit making a livelihood into a life’s work and not the other way around again. Some people may, psychically, be in a place to invest in new learning, and I take my hat off to them. For me, however, using this time to examine which parts of “normal” I want to restore has been just as valuable.
In my classroom there are long rows of hanging shelves containing multiple copies of different novels for my kids to read. Next to my little brown desk, however, I keep single copies of various books that I am reading with students one-on-one or, in my “free” Time at the suggestion of various students. My little stack of books is a colorful sculpture, an homage to the conversations I have with the wonderful young people who come through my door every day.
My and Thing1’s health situations have necessitated close adherence to the “stay home“ directive. I am treating this time at home as training for retirement when, again, there will be infinite time to write and paint as part of a last career. I’ve inaugurated a daily schedule of writing in the morning and drawing practice in the afternoon (chest pain from pneumonia still makes painting impossible).
Writing is a conversation with the zeitgeist, but, despite efforts to focus on the sparkle in the solitude, the conversation seems a bit one-sided lately. I can’t do much about the solitude, but, looking to put some sparkle in the conversation and, at least mentally, reconnect with my kids at school, I’ve started a new book sculpture next to my/Princess Jane’s fuzzy blue chair.
What do you have in your book sculpture these days?
Pain in my chest has made standing and painting less enticing over the last few weeks, but I hate to have my easel empty, especially since my study/studio is my quarantine headquarters. I decided to put the first oil painting I ever did. Appropriately, it happens to be a picture of the first masterpiece I ever had a hand in.￼￼￼
I’ve been pretty faithful about protecting and curating the figurines my kids have made over the years. I keep them on the shelf least likely to be jumped on by the cats.
In my new office I’ve added another shelf — the one I use to display greeting cards at art fairs. Right now it’s holding a different kind of greeting card, the kind you only get when a student says goodbye and lets you know, in the most colorful way possible, that your job mattered to someone.
Gallery 1 hasn’t changed much since Thing2 finished elementary school. Thing1’s recent creations all involve blocks of code that, while they bring plenty of tears to my eyes, are a little tougher to display. I curate it with the same zeal that the directors of the Louvre have for protecting the Mona Lisa.
The second gallery is evolving. Pieces in my classroom are already waiting to join it in June. It’s a different, evolving gallery, but it’s just as precious in its own way.