My month of experimenting with visual arts was, well, lessthan I had hoped. I did some water color painting, and I created some colored pencil mandalas on butcher paper with my preschool students. I picked up a long-abandoned needlework project. It wasn’t much.
My refusal to fully engage in this challenge, despite publicly stating that I was going to do it, shows me that I have more to poke at here. Truthfully, I really enjoyed those small efforts. A lot. So, why did I not do more? The horror of being incompetent at something is powerful, indeed. It seems it is even more powerful than my concern about breaking the commitment I made here.
I have left my art portfolio on my desk as a reminder of what is possible. When I get out of my own way, and push past the foolish belief that “I suck at this stuff” I experience that beautiful moment of delight in the process, the sheer joy of creating. I want to do more of that. Equally importantly, I want to conquer my fear of inadequacy.
So, my needlepoint supplies are staying out, I will join my students in their joyful abandonment in painting, drawing, and collaging.
And I will read and listen to poetry.
I am a writer, but I am not a poet. It is another one of those mediums that I avoid because of my fear of being terrible. It is also, I have just realized, another one of those things that I have lost along the way, as I have become pragmatic and practical and responsible and adult. Just as I have given up ritual and magic in so much of my life, I have given up poetry.
I want it back. Some things just cannot be expressed in a five paragraph essay or a 150 character Tweet. Some things cannot be worked out in a bulleted list. Some things need rhythm, alliteration, metaphor, lyric. Some things need to be expressed out loud. Big questions and big feelings that cannot be contained in a sentence need a stanza.
You must believe: a poem is a holy thing — a good poem, that is. ~ Theodore Roethke
Time is fleeting.
Madness takes its toll.
Oh, look. I’ve gone from a pleasant dream to mid-thought in a second. I’m suddenly wide awake, Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show running through my head.
I remember doing the Time Warp,
Drinking those moments when
The blackness would hit me
And the void would be calling
Let’s do the Time Warp again…
It happened the night before, too. If the pattern holds, my mind will start racing through random thoughts mixed with snatches of songs until I land on some unfinished work and feel anxious, head spinning, heart pounding.
Head over heart, heart over pelvis.
Pay attention to the way you stand. Stack the bones for a firm foundation.
Why am I cycling through Yoga with Adriene now? I’d agreed to try daily yoga exercises for the month of January with a group of women more motivated than I. I didn’t get very far; I think I did two days, spread over a week. The dogs were distressed, and my daughter was afraid I’d fallen and couldn’t get up. I wasn’t terribly stable. I was scaring those around me.
Take your time. Pay attention to the way you breathe. When you inhale, feel your abdomen and your rib cage expand in all four directions. Take up space…
Time. Space. This all reminds me that I was supposed to spend the month making art, for fun. But I haven’t really, unless you count some photos I took of moss, or the marzipan flowers I made with my daughter for the cupcakes to help take her mind off looming events, or the conversations with various friends about music.
Those probably don’t count.
Hey, there’s that unfinished work.
God, I need to sleep.
Hey, God. Hey. I need to sleep.
I reach into my bedside drawer to fish around quietly for a rosary. My grandma taught me long ago, when she would visit and we’d have to share a bed and she smelled pleasantly of talcum powder and yarn, that the best way to bore yourself to sleep is by starting a rosary. My hand finds some cool, smooth beads, and I slide it out.
I wonder how that works. The rosary leads you around in a predictable circle, reciting rote prayers while reflecting (or attempting to) on a portion of Christ’s life. Christ’s life, written in the stones of the Stations of the Cross, on cathedral walls, in museums. It’s the same. It’s a circle. Birth, death, birth. Repeat. But what if it’s broken? What if the end doesn’t come back to the beginning in a stable, but is able to spiral through time, Kairos time instead of Chronos? What if it reached…all the way here?
Let’s do the Time Warp again….
Hey there, random song snatches.
It’s just a jump to the left
I remember the summer I learned to do the Time Warp. I was maybe 5 or 6, and tagged along on a marching band field trip. The high schoolers thought I was so cute,
And then a step to the riiiiiight
particularly since I obviously didn’t know what I was doing, but was so enthusiastic anyway.
With your hands on your hips,
You bring your knees in tight.
But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insa-a-aaaaane
I had no idea what I was doing.
Head over heart, heart over pelvis.
I wonder if my grandmother felt like she knew what she was doing. She looked like she knew what she was doing—and she was most definitely an artist. I am actively trying to sleep under one of her most beautiful works, an afghan of blue, light blue, purple, and brown. She made it for me when I found the watch she thought she’d lost forever—the last gift my grandfather had given her before he died.
Let’s do the time warp again
I wonder if she cried while she crocheted it,
Stack the bones
I wonder if she stitched him back together in her memory, with the watch and the yarn and her shaking arthritic hands and her tears.
Isn’t that what we do, much of the time, with art? What we seek? We hook into the time slip, latch onto a thread of truth, pull it into our here and now, and interpret it through our lens. And when others (or maybe just one other, maybe the One who created us to begin with) can look at it and see it and recognize both something of themselves and something of us in it—that’s a unique connection. That’s a rush. To release that back into time, to leave a marker of this place, this time, this truth, this meeting, and the juxtaposition of them, like dropping a pin on a map–that’s a legacy. That’s taking the ghost of a thought, stacking the bones inside it, and giving it flesh.
Feel yourself expand in all directions
It can happen with an afghan, or a song, or when your four-year-old draws a picture of Heaven complete with grandparents they’ve never met.
Head over heart
I might scare those around me.
Heart over pelvis
I won’t know what I’m doing.
Jump to the left
It will take time, and space, and breath, and truth.
Stack the bones
Tomorrow I will put some flesh on some bones.
Let’s do the Time Warp again.
(Note: The quotes from Yoga with Adriene are the way my brain remembered them at 2 a.m. They may not be accurate.)
Skyline view of the Boston Public Garden, oil pastel by Kristen Allen
In the beginning, God created a writer. And it was good. Still, the writer was convinced that she could not draw, paint, or sculpt. Visual arts were not a gift meant for her to enjoy.
By and large, I suck at visual arts. I have some challenges with spatial relations, and getting things out of my head onto a canvas or drawing pad rarely works out. It’s just not my jam. I am a Word Girl through and through. I even dream in narrative. Seriously, most of my dreams have an off-screen narrator telling me what I am watching.
As my husband was putting our Christmas decorations away in the attic, he came across some boxes that needed repacking. As luck would have it (or the Almighty Creator willed it), he found the only art portfolio I have ever assembled. It was for the drawing class I had to take in order to get my final three fine arts credits to graduate with my BS degree. Oh, I dreaded that class. I hate sucking at things, and here I was paying an obscene amount of money to suck at something that someone else was going to judge and assign a grade to.
The class was life-changing. The professor, Iris, was a quirky, earthy-crunchy, painter-teacher-spiritualist. I could not help but love her. This was a summer course, so she had some liberty to do some unconventional things—like have the class meet at a different location around Boston each week. We went to the Arnold Arboretum, the Boston Public Garden, the top of a campus building in Porter Square in Cambridge, and we even took a boat out to Thompson’s Island in the middle of the Boston Harbor, one perfect summer day. (You may know the island as the site for the film, based on the Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island.)
Slowly, but surely, throughout the course, my perception of the lofty “ART” changed. I found that I began to look at the world differently. First I started noticing details, then color, light and shadow, texture. I began to see in pictures, not just in narrative.
The most remarkable change was when I was sitting under a tree, by one of the abandoned school buildings, on Thompson’s Island. I realized that I had started thinking about WORDS differently. I was seeing narrative descriptions in terms of color and texture. Words began to have a flavor. A new phrase would swirl around my mouth like the first taste sample from a bottle of fine wine. I suddenly understood toddlers’ compulsion to repeat a word or phrase incessantly, a preschooler’s delight in reading the same story over and over.
That class was a very long time ago. I still suck at drawing and painting. I still cannot cut a straight line. I still am not a visual artist.
I am a writer.
I am a writer who has a better understanding of the gifts that paintings, drawings, statuary, pottery, needlework are. I am a writer who is looking forward to seeing—and experiencing—my visual artist sisters’ and brothers’ view of the world for a bit. I’m a writer hungry for some new colors, textures, flavors.
This is partly a lack of natural talent, and partly a lack of training. My hometown did not provide funding for arts education for most of my elementary school years, so my main memory of art class involves being instructed to draw a portrait of myself brushing my teeth in kindergarten. I recall being frustrated at how awkward and unrealistic I looked on paper, how big and clumsy the hand was that held the toothbrush, and especially how my art teacher praised the way I added the detail of the toilet paper trailing down from the roll in the background. I know now that she was using a standard technique of good teachers everywhere: find something to praise. At the time I latched onto it for dear life. In my head, I was The Official Drawer of Toilet Paper from the Side.
There’s not much call for my specialty.
More than forty years later I’m still focusing more on toilet paper rolls than organic forms, more on drawing lines than on color and shade and nuance. I can see and appreciate many forms of art: thoughtful gardens, paintings and sculpture, textile and fashion, beautifully decorated cakes, intriguing makeup, architectural whimsy, even graffiti. I just don’t see myself as a co-creator in any of it. Don’t tell anyone, but I suspect I consider it a waste of my time.
I don’t consider the appreciation of art a waste of time, and I don’t consider someone else creating the art a waste of their time. I firmly believe that art is an important part of life. I have simply disqualified myself from the process because I’m not good at it, so it isn’t pragmatic.
I’m not sure when I became afflicted with pragmatism. It wasn’t during childhood—I could spend hours sitting and watching the waves on the water, or listening to music, or making “acorn soup” in a frisbee to leave by the trees for the fairies. (Feeding fairies may actually be pragmatic, depending on how you view fairies.)
Somewhere between shoeless summers spent in the lake and now, things got busy. I became a responsible adult, with the emphasis on responsible (more on that another day). I still take time to enjoy things in my life, and I still create to a certain extent through writing. But even writing has become something I do with an end goal in mind: did I finish the blog post on time? (Hint: this is at least three days late.) Where could I submit that poem? If I take the plot of this story down that rabbit hole that will likely dead-end, isn’t that a waste of time?
I realize that I have begun to value time and activity in terms of the end product. A number of friends recently shared this article, which intrigued me and inspired me to reconsider how I structure my time. But even its counterintuitive suggestions are still justified by an end goal of greater output.
If I were to list out my beliefs and priorities, the importance of production would not be anywhere on the list. Not just not at the top—it wouldn’t be anywhere. I believe that life has value because it is. I believe that people have inherent dignity because they are. Yes, we have to make a living and earn money for food and shelter; I’m not talking about providing the necessities of life but of the things that preoccupy our hearts and minds. I believe that we are not only capable of joy for its own sake, but that it can and should be found in surprising places and in surprising ways, and that if we are in fact aiming to please our Creator, we do so best when we take joy in creating.
When did I stop applying this to myself?
I don’t really know, and I’m not going to waste time on the answer. What I am going to do is try to spend some time this month creating—joyfully, messily, poorly—for its own sake. Not with intent to produce, or sell, or even display for evaluation, but just to spend time creating in the presence of my Creator. “I am here, creating with You.”
It may be the most sincere prayer I can offer for 2019.