Something New

Depression may inspire creative bursts of energy once it’s gone, but, more often, I’ve found that giving into creativity has to happen before the depression can truly start to recede. Sometimes, that surrender starts with trying something new.

I recently stumbled onto a quote by Plutarch that goes, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” The quote has been rumbling around in my brain for a few days now, seemingly more accurate each time I recall it.

I often paint because I cannot find words that vent emotions without being destructive. Whether or not it leads to good or bad art is irrelevant. The creating on canvas is the path away from hurt and from hurting others.

Lately, I’ve been writing more and painting less (it goes in cycles), But there are still nights I struggle to distill churning feelings and events into text. Last night, watching our orange tabby embrace his carefree, hedonistic identity and, as always, still wondering about my own, I got stuck between picking up a brush or opening the keyboard. Then, instead of sitting and stewing about it for another half hour until I was too tired to do anything useful, I got up and retrieved a journal from my office and decided to try something new.

I decided to try and make a painting that spoke.

I’ve written maybe three or four poems in the last seven years. It is certainly not a forte. As with the act of painting that leads me away from hurt and hurting, however, trying to write poetry was not about making something good, it was about actively surrendering to creativity.

Poem: The Business of Being

Fat, orange, arranged on the table

Like an idol on an altar,

The tabby invest his life, without reservation,

In the business,

Not of being born or changing or dying

But of being the libertine he is.

And I, still changing, still searching,

Craving substance, loathing indolence but filled with envy,

Can feel the faith of one who’s found

A business of being meant just for him.

What Next?

This time last year, I was holding Thing1’s hand as he recovered from major surgery and navigating an unwanted gap year. I was still working at home, and Thing2 was still getting his feet wet in middle school. They were the center of my world and the center of my life, and I thought I knew who I was – a mom, writer and artist. The last twelve months, however, have changed all of that.

When I first started this blog seven years ago, I was a work-at-home-mom. The boys were 12 and 6 and, in addition to being the center of my world, were the centers of my days. At the time, the messes and chaotic rituals that go with raising creative kids in the country were endless sources of entertaining and, sometimes, heartbreaking, inspiration for post after post. Trying to preserve the moments, I got back to drawing/illustrating and then found my way to painting.

While Thing1 and Thing2 starred in many posts, I resisted making this a “mommy blog“ for reasons I couldn’t explain then but, after this year of change, I am starting to understand now.

I changed work venues and careers at the beginning of summer. Then Thing1 left for college after a summer of work. Thing2, a case study in extroversion, waded enthusiastically into the middle of middle school, and, while they are still the centers of my life and my heart, they are not always at the center of my day. Thing1 is carving out his own life. Thing2 is working his heart out to be better than his brother at everything. I’m getting to know them both as young adults, and it is an exhilarating experience. It’s also a confusing one.

The kids seem to be forging their identities almost effortlessly. I’ll always be a mom, but with each snip of the apron strings, my ‘mommy’ days seem to be slipping away. I’m still new enough at teaching to think of it as something I do and not yet as something I am, and that distinction has, over the last few months, repeatedly prompted a question about the other important part of my life of “What do I create?” Am I a writer who paints or an artist who writes?

With our family stories evolving away from the kitchen table near the wood stove, for the first time in seven years, I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to paint. I even started taking internet personality tests (always a reliable source of wisdom), hoping the results would spur an obvious answer and direction.

Then a friend reminded me that an artist is an artist, regardless of the medium. That meant the answer was simply in getting back to creating again. The task, now, is to start with writing something – anything – every day.

I know he’s right.

I know that the act of creating will be the discovery of the next stage of life. So bear with me as I get my new bearings. All topics are on the table, and the journey has just begun.

Saturday Gave Away

Friday the 13th rounded out this last week which also included a full moon and a lead into the upcoming week before Christmas creating what one meme called a “Teacher Trifecta of Terror” (it can be kind of scary for parents too).

Friday was actually pretty lucky for me. There were no meltdowns. Everyone got most of their work done. And, for the first time all week, I got to bed before one in the morning.

Teaching has turned into the toughest, best job I’ve ever had. The nature of our school population combined with a nationwide teacher shortage has translated into opportunities to take on more challenging responsibilities early on in my new career. The only drawback is that, some weeks, everything — creativity, fitness, diet, sleep — gets moved from the backseat to the spare.

Friday night, though, I headed out with a plan. Dinner, then Art, then sleep, followed by a day of creativity on Saturday. But, as I fought my heavy eyelids as I drove home, I felt the itinerary change. I got home and, in between moments of shut-eye interrupted by an iPad or iPhone falling to the floor, I managed to make myself a lovely burnt supper before passing out and bumping the rest of my itinerary to what I promised myself would be a “makers“ Saturday.

I kicked off Saturday, however, with an impromptu contest of “you get up first“ with my husband. After a late breakfast and laundry folding, I was determined to hit the studio. Lethargy has other ideas, keeping me on the couch long enough for the orange cat to settle on my lap (which everyone knows, by law, means staying in that exact same position until kitty is ready to move again). The day was ticking away, and guilt turned into doubt.

The sun set, and after a miraculously unburnt dinner, I thought I had just wasted one of the only unscheduled Saturdays we’ve had in months.

But the funny thing about brains is that letting them nap for a day is a lot like finally getting an overtired toddler to sleep. There’s a lot of fussing getting it to quiet. When it starts to wake up again, it can be disoriented and cranky at first, but then it really starts to acknowledge the recharge and wants to be friends again.

Mine fired up last night again about most peoples normal bedtime. After hours vegetating and dozing in front of the TV, sketchbooks started calling from down the hall. I retrieved a pad and a journal From the studio. For the next hour, my pen scratched, whispering ideas in my ear faster than I could scribble them, and reminding me that sometimes clearing your head — and your day – can be an act of creativity too.

Bodysurfing

Friday night, after a great day at school, I drove home determined to write or paint something. I had gone to bed early each of the previous two nights, and I wanted to make the most of a non-school night. Friday, however, was about to be another part of a nagging pattern.

I got home not long after the sun went down, but, even knowing I would sleep late the next day, I headed right to the electric blanket instead of my studio. Saturday Thing1 came home for an overnight from school, and, even after what would normally be an inspiring evening of dinner and catching up, the light in my studio stayed off after dinner.

I know this pattern. In the past, I have confused this creative coma with fatigue. Now, it may take a few days, but, now, I can see the apathy for the skimming of the Mariana Trench of depression that it is.

Most of the time, writing has enough tow capacity to keep my head over water in spite of a strong under-tow. As long as I create, the gulps of air it generates are enough to deal with the buffeting waves of inexplicable melancholy that, in the past, have had the potential to push me under. When I stop, I sink.

There are times, however, when the waves hit faster than the keyboard or canvases can keep up. These waves don’t stop me from thinking of of anything to write or paint. They hit so hard or fast that I forget that I need or even that want that next page or piece to float above the flotsam.

This morning I got up early for an appointment in town, and every tree in Vermont was bejeweled with frozen mist. The sun shining through through the crystal coating made it feel like I was driving through a set for Dr Zhivago, but, even though I snapped a few bad photos, I knew I wouldn’t paint any of it later.

The bending light, however, refracted through my brain and reminded me that I’m not tired. I’m bodysurfing, and climbing back on top of the waves means ignoring the ‘fatigue’ long enough to snap, sketch or scribe absolutely anything.

To Every Purpose

My journey to teaching began as a selfish impulse. I wanted to do something more meaningful and useful, but I also wanted more time for creativity.

Yes, you read that right. I went into teaching because I wanted more time.

Are you finished laughing at that yet?

I was still giggling about it as I sat at my desk on Thanksgiving eve wrapping up dishes and a last minute IEP.

Now as I write this, it’s the last minute of the last night of Thanksgiving vacation. I’m watching a winter storm bury us under at least 10 inches of snow as I try to figure out lesson plans for tomorrow.

I’ve also earmarked a little time tonight — and each day for the foreseeable future —- for blogging, always made a little longer because I illustrate most of my posts. The reality is, however, that I can’t complain about not having time for creativity. I can complain about having to squeeze creative writing into my day, but my day is nothing if not filled with the creative challenges of getting kids to engage with something other than an iPhone.

I heard a line in a movie recently that if you go to teaching, you give all your creative energy away to the kids. I don’t think that’s true. I think you give away time, but I think using that energy all the day is like exercising a muscle. It doesn’t get used up– it gets stronger.

I know the work-life balance will sort itself out as I get more experience, but, for now, I’m learning to distinguish when I am having trouble being creative and when I’m simply having trouble finding the time to exercise it exactly the way I want on a certain day.

What the Heart Needs

One of the ironies of my career change to teaching English and Special Ed is that, while I feel that an English teacher should be writing with every spare minute of time (and feel more confident about writing than any other skill), in the few minutes of each day that I devote to creativity, I end up drawing.

It is what the heart wants, even if the head is saying I should/need to write. Part of me wonders if one of the pitfalls (or blessings depending on how you look at it) of a career that demands so much emotion and thought and writing is that, at the end of the day, there is only room for the emotional release that is drawing or painting.

I recently came across a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo. He had just received oil paints from his brother, and, during the year of waiting for the paint, had devoted himself to drawing. In the letter he mentioned how grateful he was for the time to draw, it helped him see the beauty in the paint so much better.

For my part, this last month of drawing has helped me see the beauty in my students and my life even better. It is not writing, but it is still a conversation with life.

I don’t know if the next season of creativity will feature brushes or strokes on the keyboard, but I do know that the main goal is to keep the conversation going, one way or another.

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