I am spending my Saturday evening working on my first response for my first assignment for my first class in my masters degree program. As I was working through my outline, I suddenly realized a piece I had printed out two years ago and saved because it might be useful had suddenly become useful. I laughed, not because a well thought out plan had come to fruition but because I have finally become my mother. It’s a good thing.
My mom is a history nerd. She will happily stay up until two in the morning researching the most arcane facts about the former Soviet Union or the Gilded Age. When we were kids we used to giggle about her DIY library of notes xeroxed from various Library‘s and her wall of timelines (I would steal that timeline for my classroom now if I could). What sticks with me as an adult, however, is how Curiosity made her so creative. It made her a great teacher, and it’s still putting life into her life.
So as I was going through one of my binders of notes that once had me worried that I would be on an episode of “Hoarders – Teachers Edition”, I had to giggle a little. My curiosity tonight prompted a discovery and even a little creativity, and I realized I have my mom to thank for it.
Even shielded from news most of the day because of the internet ban at work, it’s impossible to avoid all awareness of an earth-turned-inferno and humanity’s own seeming desire to immolate itself in war. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, “What’s the point?”
But the minute I start asking that question, I know it’s not the news. It’s me.
Hammering out a few words each day has seemed to be a Herculean task, and, until last night, I hadn’t touched a canvas in months. I know that, even though in some cases, things really are that bad for some of the world, right now, depression is warping the lens of my mind’s eye.
Sometimes depression is like seeing through a fog, but there are times when it is like living with a lens stopped down to the smallest aperture. It throws everything into sharp, extreme focus. There are no soft edges. There is no cropping out ugly details that make the world seem like an overflowing landfill that hardly needs anymore pointless paintings or posts.
And I know it’s not the world, it’s me – at the moment.
I like to think the depression isn’t who I am, but it’s been with me, off and on, since I could crawl. It’s at least as much a part of me as being near-sighted, and there are even times I’m glad for the hyper focus (this isn’t one of them).
I was driving home tonight, still struggling for what to paint or draw. I knew my head needs me to but couldn’t reconcile my need with the resources it would use, the waste it might generate, or the pointlessness of making anything.
Usually Facebook is the opposite of an anti-depressant, so it was against my better judgement (already shaky this week) that I launched it on my phone when I got home and sat down to decompress. The first photo that hit my feed, however, was a screenshot of a September tweet from Dan Rather that went like this:
“Somewhere, amid the darkness, a painter measures a canvas, a poets tests a line aloud, a songwriter brings a melody into tune. Art inspires, provokes thought, reflects beauty and pain. I seek it out even more in these times. And, in doing so, I find hope in the human spirit.”
It was one answer to a question I ask all the time – especially when my focus is sharp but corrupted .
Is art selfish?
I know art is therapy – a softening of the lens. When continents really are on fire, when children are living in prisons and adults are making more misery from war, however, I hope for it to be a light in the darkness. For tonight, the hope is enough to let some softness into my view.
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,
Thing1 is still on winter break from college, but, as we’re learning, just because your child comes home for a few weeks, doesn’t mean they’re really at home.￼￼
We see him at meal times, and have had fun and interesting conversations with him about school and politics and all the other subjects in which he’s finding an interest. But, increasingly, there are times when he is scarce.
We have a visit this evening in the living room from Princess Jane, or a little gray huntress. When Thing1 is home, she stays upstairs in his room 24/7. It’s not quite time for him to fly the asylum and head back to school, but already missing friends and the hustle and bustle of college and city life, he headed to Boston for the weekend for a get together. Jane has been downstairs with us, looking for him (and now Thing2 who’s at a sleepover) since he left.
It’s good that he’s having adventures, but we’re missing him. Tonight, for one of the few times in the last 19 years there are only two adults in the house.￼and we’re still adjusting to the idea that kids actually do grow up and fly the asylum.￼ Jane’s presence is a bit of reassurance that it’s OK to take a little time to get used to this brave new world of empty nesting.￼
The morning after Christmas used to feel like the calm after a storm. Now that the kids are all in their late teens and early 20s, the morning after is more anti-climactic￼, or so I thought when I crept down from the guestroom to my sister’s kitchen.
I was trying to get back on the diet wagon after 24 hours of gluttony that could’ve landed me a spot on the dieting edition of “Food Hoarders”. I had almost completely abandoned my attempt, cracking open the fridge in search of leftovers, when I heard my sister in her thick socks, padding into the kitchen.￼￼ She got a small bite to eat, and we nibbled and chatted about work and kids — our first sister to sister chat since start of the holiday – until my father emerged from the other guestroom just off the kitchen.￼￼
Dad made a piece of toast, and the three of us talked, keeping our volume low –a tacit ￼recognition that a very short, rare spell was being cast as the early sun started warming the kitchen and chasing the frost on the windows. A few minutes later, my mother, perfectly coiffed, emerged, only slightly increasing the hum of our conversation￼￼￼.
Work conversation morphed into discussion of family summer vacation￼ plans, and suddenly my mom uttered a high pitch￼ed, “Huh!”
We didn’t realize it at the moment, but spell had just been broken.
“I can’t remember when the four of us have last been in the same room at the same time,” my mom said. I looked at her and looked around the kitchen, and realized it had been years since our foursome had been in one place without in-laws and children or grandchildren￼ present.
When I thought back to the times when just my sister and I were alone with our parents – our little unit, I remembered being completely different person.￼ I remembered being unsure of and unhappy about what life would bring. I remembered times when I all but cut off communication with our unit and the reasons I reconnected.
In the intervening years and distances, we’ve all changed. We’ve recycled and renewed our relationships, almost creating new ones as different people.
Now, as my sister and I are parenting young adults, we are watching our own family units start to divide. Our children are beginning to make their own lives and become their own people, and I started to wonder how many more opportunities like this the Big Guy and I have for moments like this with our boys.￼
￼We heard one of the kids moving around upstairs and knew that our small moment was about to end.
“Do you all want to move into the dining room where it’s a little more comfortable?” My sister asked, sensing a change.
“No,” my dad answered, “dining rooms are for eating, kitchens are for talking.”
We laughe￼d, and, even though our little spell had ended, we lingered in the kitchen waiting for the next arrival to find a little piece of conversation to nibble on.￼￼￼