￼ There are several things that are certain in life at our house.
And if I sit down at my desk and open a keyboard or a tin of watercolor paint (it has to be watercolor paint), Jim-Bob will crawl into my arms within five minutes to offer his assistance and advice. He is now demanding full credit on all paintings, arguing that he has become an indispensable part of the creative process.
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,
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.