Conscious Detachment

I’m doing a very different set of paintings right now. Winter seems to be losing its grip, the light is glorious as the angle of the sun shifts, but I am still stuck in my inner world. It’s the one I find myself painting recently because, for the first time ever, I have found the perfect medium for it.

My inner world could only be called abstract. The stories in my head could only be sketched as  chaos — documented fodder for a future commitment hearing. Giving into that world when I am in front of an easel, however, casts new light on the value of retreating from the world.

Everyday I work to help kids who are not neurotypical manage stereotypical behaviors that are barriers to educational and social development — not always but still too often because of a world that fears any behavior that isn’t “normal”. As a special educator and a doctoral student studying behavior, I understand the importance of helping children interact with their surroundings and with society. As someone who has lived with her own atypical her behaviors, however, I sometimes feel like a hypocrite.

My own inner world is vast and complex. I am always mindful not to wade into the undertow, but, as I’m dancing in front of the easel to a random playlist, splashing my feet in the foamy fantasy, tension from the last few weeks dissolves. I stop worrying about being too fat, about endless to-do lists, and budgets. 

Conscious detachment from the “real“ world, aided by brush and paint, soothes body and brain. It leaves me alone with my frailties but also my strengths. Problems become manageable, and the same behavior that sometimes has me and the world holding each other at arm’s length becomes a secret weapon. 

And I remember why so many children with behavioral issues revert inward in the first place.

I know my job is to help kids self soothe with intention rather than isolation and possibly perseverate on an issue. It’s an important concept to master for anyone, but it makes me wonder if our societal worship of “normal“ and of being constantly entertained and occupied, is training us out of the ability to be alone with ourselves, and to be calmed by that.

Winter Heat

Ice Dams, 10″ x 20″

Sometimes to help someone, you need to disconnect just enough from your empathy to keep the other person from the fog instead of marching into it holding their hand. I’ve had a few such cases at work lately. I can recognize my own traumas in the person I’m helping, but to use the lessons of experience and education, had to resist the temptation of wading into memories.  

One of the pitfalls of that professional detachment is that it is sometimes hard to reconnect with other parts of life.

Painting is usually my lifeline, but the latest sessions felt as flat as the rest of my day. I’ve recently moved into abstraction, channeling the emotions inspired by our local mountains and the storms that move through them, and the emotion wasn’t there. 

I tried faking the emotion. Then I tried painting the flatness. 

Finally I decided to fight the flatness and get out of the studio for a day and go to the fields and woods.

I hadn’t been plein air painting since summer, and I rarely paint outside in the winter. Sometimes, I paint in the car with watercolors, but last Saturday, I knew I needed the kiss of the cold and wind to bring my whole brain to life.

It was bitter cold when I parked the car by my favorite field. I had my fingerless mittens and layers of shawl and scarf, and, after finding the right way to position my easel by the car door so that the wind wouldn’t blow things over and wick the heat from my body, I queued up a new playlist of mostly melancholy music to match my mood.

 I was keen to get the racing clouds as they brushed the tops of the mountains with a new dusting of snow. I could feel my fingertips freezing, but there was a glow of life in the midst of this winter scape. I could hear ice cracking on the nearby Battenkill as the sun briefly emerged, and some creature, disturbed my presence, rustled nearby, invading my iPod playlist with their own music.

For the first time in days I was fully awake, intensely aware of every emotion, completely at peace, and seeing the answers to a question that had been plaguing me for months: Why do I need to paint nature?

Is there a point to painting nature when the world is in chaos? Aren’t there more important subjects? Why do I need nature in order to paint?

The answers had happened as winter’s soundtrack and sights and my moving brush reconnected with the same emotions that make me want to help and hope for a world at peace in the first place. 

Incubation

Incubation

I used to think about December as the beginning of hibernation. Creative output always seems to slow down as the days get shorter, and work seems far more intrusive than it does in the crackling light of autumn.

For last last few weeks my output has followed the same trend. It took me a while to recognize the pattern because I initially blamed the slowdown the Ménière’s disease that’s been with me in earnest for a year now. Yesterday, though, as I drove down the mountain and had to stop and catch my breath as fast moving clouds dusted with powdered sugar the top of a mountain across the river, I realized that this time of year is not solely about hibernating.

To catch that moment, you would’ve had to be in the exact spot at the exact time with me. The peak of the mountain is almost hidden by two others that “overlap“ each other in the view that is only seen when coming down the road from our remote town to a “main“ route. The moment sparked attempts to repeats – something that shouldn’t be too difficult in Southwestern vermont in the winter – but it was the only one that day. The moment and the search germinated hours of wonder and reading and discovery.

What do I want to capture when I paint or draw? Moments of breathlessness? Revelations of the grit that lies at the foot of these mountains? Or appreciation of one the few places humans haven’t tamed?

Tonight will be occupied with the work of work, but in the back of my brain, the next painting session is germinating. It occurred to me that every racing thought, every quiet space that arrives with the dark of winter is not about hibernating through depression. Instead that darkness may just be the needed incubation for what will come next.

“Incubation” and other pieces are on my Etsy shop and ready to ship.

Re-creation

I’ve recently started a painting mentorship with the aim of finding and clarifying my voice and improving my technique.

The first few weeks have focused on killing my inner critic (for the moment) and painting with “reckless abandon.” They also came with a recommendation to temporary stop selling work (aside from a fair in September) to discourage the temptation of painting or an imagined “audience“ rather than just painting.

When Thing2 dragged us to see Maverick earlier this summer, I ridiculed Tom Cruise’s oft repeated mantra of “don’t think, just do.” The advice to a younger pilot seemed to be a larger philosophy discouraging critical thought.

As I drove into early exercises, however, I giggled as I co-opted and adapted the motto to “Don’t Think, Just Paint.”

One result was a collection of paintings too numerous to post, let alone hang in my office/studio. Another one was a reignited compulsion to draw anything, anytime, everywhere. The main result, however, was a vacation from my own head and the endless inner debate about what or even if to paint.

Critical analysis will happen down the road, but part of vacation — of re-creation — is disconnecting from doubt and engaging with life with reckless abandon.

Where the Taconics Meet the Greens

12 x 12, oil on canvas

I see this particular view every time we come back from and the Equinox that I have to go back to again and again because I can’t get them out of my head and they never the same two days in a row. This is another one of those spots.

The difference is I have to remember this one because there’s no good place to park and draw or take pictures, so, each time we round this particular corner at the crest of this foothill in the Taconics, I try to commit another part of this view to memory.

Journey of a Thousand Miles

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. 

Okay. 

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.