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.
When Thing1 was still a pea-picker, he hunched over his Matchbox cars for hours, watching their wheels and gears as he drove them around carpets and vitas he created and telling them their stories. I wish I had written them down because sometimes I think he needs proof as to just how creative he is. I think a lot of people do.
Thing1 is about to turn twenty. He knows how to fix cars and program computers. Anyone who watched him studying the movements of cars as a toddler would say it pretty accurately predicted his mechanical aptitude.
His love of discovering how things work, however, often translates him putting high value on common sense and things that can be proven. When I tell him of the spaceships he conceived and drew, of the stories he told, he answers, “I’m just not all that creative anymore, Mom.”
Yesterday proved him wrong, and this time I got the photos to prove it.
When Thing1’s college closed, his first action, over our strong objections, was to go job hunting. He received two offers as soon as the state closed down both businesses, but his employment history from the previous year earned him the ability to collect benefits during the pandemic (he wasn’t eligible for the stimulus because he’s too much of an adult and too much of a dependent to fall into any category the government considers visible). He’s saving some of that money but, still a teenager for another two months, money can burn a hole in his pocket.
Thursday he announced he was buying a hammock to use at school when it reopens. Then he announced he’d like to test drive at home. He asked the Big Guy and then me if we could think of any appropriately socially distant pairs of trees from which to hang it and, despite being surrounded by trees, we just scratched our heads.
Friday, Thing1 and Thing2 traced our normal route around the house, making incursions in to the forest when this or that pair of trees sparked their interest. They showed us a few ideas, but the Big Guy and I just couldn’t see the right trees for the forest.
Saturday, Thing1 disappeared again and then took his machete and power saw to the woods behind the house. We heard some hacking and then a familiar buzz. Thing1 came back to assure us that the tree he’d taken down had been punky and about to fall anyway and then to invite us to the clearing he’d made. The Big Guy and I started our usual afternoon route and went to where the boys were waiting, Thing2 dancing from foot to foot to show us Thing1’s work.
The boys had found a perfect opening into the forest and created a more defined path to a pair of trees that, somehow, the Big Guy and I had missed the day before. Thing1 had felled one tree and cleared some rosy bush between the two that would support his hammock. Then he indicated the tree-filled slope leading down to the river that will be the view for anyone sitting in the hammock.
Thing1 had pulled a paradise from the mass of trees and rosy bush. When the hammock arrives, he’ll assemble it and give credit for the completed project to his common sense. I’d like to think that it was actually good old fashioned common creativity that helped him identify the perfect spot to meditate on the question.
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.
We may be the only house in Vermont where you can’t actually see a mountain. We carved our plot out of the middle of a hill, leaving as many trees as possible. The result is that we can see outlines of mountains through the branches in the winter, but most of our view is defined by the vertical lines of the tree trunks and the blur of green that covers them in the summer. It’s not a vista or a monument. It’s not white noise, it’s visual tree noise.
I’ve always been grateful for that tree noise. After a stressful day, it brings me back to earth. It soothes and then inspires. Even when I was working at home, however, I didn’t understand its full potential.
Normally, just a few days of being home gives me a co-morbid case of cabin fever and wanderlust. Pneumonia initiated my quarantine back in March, well ahead of the state lockdown. It’s still kicks my butt each day, but yesterday I realized that illness is not the only thing that, for the first time in my life, has turned me into a happier homebody.
Thing1 wanted to test drive his car after replacing the cooling system and invited the Big Guy and Thing2 along for a joyride. It was a perfect spring day in the Green Mountain state, so, of course, they said yes. Wiped out from sitting in the garden and mulching the onions (thank you Strawbale Gardening), I opted for a nap in the lawn chair.
The seasonal streams and wind sang through the trees, supported by their supporting chorus of songbirds and crows. I opened my eyes every so often to absorb the visual tree noise. Recently turned green after a last blast of snow, it took center stage again.
I’ve viewed most of our world lately from my fuzzy blue office chair. The tree noise has consisted mostly of branches and mud and snow, but whether highlighted by puffy clouds and a crystal sky or muted against a backdrop of purple and mud, the effect has been the same.
The patterns and colors wipe away concerns and replace them with ideas and creativity. “Do I have the right shoes for that?” and “What’s my next career move?” become an hour of writing and reading. Paintings conceived replace wish lists made up of things that create happiness for the few minutes after they’re bought.
As those wish lists disappear, so does the cabin fever. We still order the things we need — groceries, essentials. I think, however, my days of trying to wander away from my worries or to purchase happiness and serenity may be over.