I do not think of art as therapy, at least not the way I work: painting, exhibiting, selling. I think of it as my job, what I do. It’s not self-expression. It’s my work. On the other hand, there are times when I think I may have to admit that what I paint does effect and reflect my inner life.
I had some upsetting experiences this week with some people close to me and then went into my studio and took an entirely new approach to a painting that had been subdued, a painting that never looked quite right, sat patiently waiting for something to change in me. I slashed it with aggressive strokes of paint and color and gave it a new life. If this is therapy, then anything in life could be therapy. But the painting is not me. It has its own life. It needed me to change. To be willing to take a chance with it, to do something different, more bold, wake it up.
A scientist friend of mine once said that he thought there was no difference between art and science. They both ask the question “what if?” In painting, there is rarely a chance to go back to what was there before a change is made, so the hesitation is more or less an obstacle, depending on the state of mind I might be in when working. At this point, I take more chances, ask more questions. There is not enough time to hesitate.
The Scandinavians have it right: they say there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.
Wednesday morning the sun was reflecting pink on the snow. The trees were covered with a layer of frost. I met some women waiting for their children at the school bus stop and we were all talking about how beautiful it was, we were all out early taking pictures.
It has been interesting this week, going into Halifax where the weather is not what it is out here in the country. There the joy of snow has, unfortunately, faded into frustration and complaints. It is different when driving conditions are so difficult. And everyone is exchanging traffic horror stories, like it is a competition to see who has had the worst experience.
Here's mine: Tuesday it took me two hours to drive into Halifax (usually a 20 to 25 minute trip)! It took me two hours again to go just across town (a ten minute trip, ordinarily) after school. A half hour just to get out of the parking garage! Grid locks, dirty snow, piles 12 feet high everywhere, one lane streets. Most drivers were very polite, letting people in, waiting patiently. But sometimes someone would get a little hot under the collar and do some stupid things, take chances. With the snow piled so high you can’t see around corners and the roads narrowed and traffic so slow, it is a good thing that I enjoy CBC radio so much. And a good thing that it is the end of February and warming up. Maybe.
There is one leaf on an old oak tree outside my kitchen window. Tenacious, fluttering in the cold winter wind. Nowhere to go except the frozen snow. Waiting, with me, for spring.
I just saw a Shrek for the second time and enjoyed it just as much. The beautiful princess finds her true love, turns into her true self, with their first kiss, and they live …….you know the story. Sort of. The twist is that Shrek is an ogre, a big, ugly (albeit intelligent, witty, strong) ogre (with a beautiful, soft smile when he dares to smile). And she is……..if you haven’t, do see it. Shrek never seems really ugly. He is such an interesting ogre, so much character and depth to his personality. A delight to get to know.
My mother used to say “handsome is as handsome does”. And Shrek is very handsome. As is Schmidt (in About Schmidt) at the end of the movie, where he exposes his inner heart. Then he becomes beautiful, a beautiful, big person, and it doesn’t matter if his flesh is weak, tired, his heart and mind are pure at this moment.
Body image is such an interesting, challenging subject. Shrek thinks he is ugly. So he tries to scare everyone away. That’s his “job”. My mother was very slender but this brought her much unhappiness because she thought she was skinny. She had that porcelain skin, very light and transparent, which made her look fragile and delicate. I have the exact same body shape, size and height (and, although I did't want them, would have fit into all her clothes when she died) and even my face and facial expressions are very similar. My skin tone is darker. When I was younger, I wanted to be small, short. It was “in”. But now, everyone being taller with each generation, and the possibility of shrinking with aging, I have felt embarrassed being short. Until recently. A good friend, who is my size, keeps referring to me as “little one” and the affection overrides the size reference, lets me look at it differently. And one of my Pilates instructors is also my size and she looks good. So maybe short is good. It is what I have, so that is good.
The snow plow came late Saturday afternoon. At times the snow was blowing over the hood of his truck so thick, it looked like he would be buried forever in this never ending snow. But he finished his task, leaving me to shovel (again) what he had put in the tunnel I had just dug the day before so I could get to my car.
Most of the people I have talked to in the last couple of days say they spent about four hours shoveling snow on Friday, and of course, a few more hours on Saturday. Massage therapists and chiropractors will be very busy this week!
The snow is worse in Halifax. At least here there is land for it to go to. Still, school is closed, along with most of Halifax, today. With my week of retreat, it has been about ten days since I saw anyone except the snow plow driver. I’ve talked to friends and neighbors on the phone and that has been nice, but I must admit, I am enjoying the solitude. The busy schedule and desire to socialize will return soon enough. Perhaps tomorrow if the roads are clear enough.
With all the snow abounding here (and more coming today) I have been struck by how beautiful it is. No matter how hard to navigate and how long winter is here in the North, the scenery is unbelievably beautiful. I cannot stop taking pictures, trying to keep the beauty forever.
When I was studying philosophy as an undergraduate, I was fascinated by Plato’s idea of absolute beauty. I held it to mean that there could be some standard to which we strive to attain, some beauty that was truth. The perfect painting waiting to be painted. Something everyone would know when they saw it, that it was beautiful, perfect. I once asked my Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche about this. He had been talking about absolute and relative truth. His reply stopped my mind: that absolute beauty was not a concept. I think he meant that we see beauty in relative terms. Every culture has its ideas about beauty and this too changes.
I have a friend whose cat is named beauty. Every time she mentions her cat by name, I am struck by the affection that conveys. True beauty must have a quality of connection in it. Are we connecting to what we know or to what we feel, like loving a cat?
I prefer my paintings to sit on the cusp between crude and beautiful, that they have a rawness that gives them life; not perfect. When they do, I feel the mystery of their creation. I read once that there is no point in striving for perfection because perfection is boring. The excitement is in the places where things rub against each other, make sparks, possibly make fire.
Retreat ended with a blizzard! And this time not in my mind. The Halifax area was hit with 95 cm of snow (over 3 feet)! Lots of wind and blowing snow for what felt like days. So I spent a few hours after ending my meditation retreat shoveling snow and taking pictures. The sun was out all day, making penetrating shadows in the snow and warming my house. There was no electricity in my neighborhood for thirty hours which also meant lots of candles and no heat, no water (I am on a well), intermittent phone use, and no electrical entertainments. Being used to playing the radio in my mind from a week of retreat practice, the lack of connection to the outside stimulation was no loss. Lack of water and heat is more serious. And it is hard to read by candlelight. There is only so much sleep you can do, so when the refrigerator started making humming noises again in the evening, it was beautiful music. The first thing I did was make a cup of hot tea.
I am still waiting for the snow plow to clear my long driveway and hope to be able to get out before winter is over. There is school on Monday, that is, if the 20 cm we are expecting tomorrow do not cause much more obstructions to travel. Everything else seems back to normal now. Until next time. I really should invest in a generator.
I am going on retreat. I have no idea what it will be like, how I will feel. I have done many retreats and each one has been different. Some have been painful, emotional, some have been boring, some just flat. I do know what I will be doing. I will unplug the phone, turn off my computer, lock the door and put a sign up: “Do not disturb. On retreat until February 21.” I’m going to be taking a week off from everything. Sounds like a holiday. But it is not. I’m not chasing bliss. Although I wouldn't push that away either. I have a specific meditation practice that I will be doing. I’ll meditate, eat, sleep, read dharma, and probably be very glad when the week is over.
I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for the past twenty-five years, almost to the day. It was a snowy day, George Washington’s birthday to be exact, in New York City when I first walked into the Dharmadhatu and asked for meditation instruction. It is now called the Shambhala Centre. But whatever you call it, I am very grateful to have connected to the Buddhist teachings. It is the meditation practice that has helped me get out of my own way.
So folks, I’ll continue here with you next week…………………..
I went to see The Invasion of the Barbarians Monday evening. This is a “must see” movie. It is very thoughtful, energetic, funny, sad, touching, rewarding. About a man who is dying and how he relates to his family, children, wife, lovers, friends and how they relate to him. It is about learning to love, to lust, to live, to die well. There are few movies these days that I would like to see again. This one deserves a repeat viewing.
I finally saw About Schmidt and thought Jack Nicholson’s performance enchanting. He was still Jack Nicholson, but not the one I expected. In all his previous movies, Nicholson has had a strong sexual allure. Here he lets it all hang out. Literally. His ugly butt, flabby belly, double chin. All of it. And the sad person behind the fallen flesh. Yes, Toni’s son is right. It is gross, but it takes a lot of guts to show that much person.
The snow came down this afternoon in a heavy blanket.........
Then the snow stopped and the sun set behind the trees covered with new snow.......
My friend Yoko came over this afternoon. We play duets (four hand piano duets) together once a week, usually on Wednesday evenings, and then we take turns cooking dinner. But tonight she has to go into Halifax. As we were playing today, the snow started coming down in big flakes, very fast. It felt like we were in a movie set, playing Dvorak and Grieg and watching the trees around us turn white again.
We began playing together last summer. My house alarm had gone off by mistake and as she lives up the road, the monitoring company had called her (I had given them her number for emergencies). She came over later when I was home and we began playing for each other. It was delightful. We both knew a lot of the same music and she suggested the duets. At first I hesitated. I had played with my father, he on the violin, and it was not a lot of fun. My timing was never good and I had trouble sight reading. But once Yoko and I started playing together I started looking forward to our evenings. They have a special magic. The communication of listening to each other, sharpening our senses. We laugh when we make mistakes. And my timing and sight reading skills have improved.
Yoko brought over a small tape recorder today. It sounded like an old radio when we played it back. Very tinny. We sat and listened to ourselves playing while we watched even more heavy snow fall outside the windows. It's cleared now. More snow to shovel, but my driveway is no longer a skating rink for cars. The snow helps with traction.
I frequently think about the question of how much to talk about, how much to tell other people, in conversation, in writing. The importance of secrets, secretiveness. Privacy. When I was a child, I used to wet the toothbrush so my mother wouldn’t know I didn’t brush my teeth that day. (I’ve paid for that one!) Sometimes it is an act of kindness not to “tell”. Sometimes not talking is from fear, sometimes protective of the other person. I have a friend who is very open about his feelings, his reactions, relationships. I find it refreshing to hear about how he relates to people.
“Secrets” are important in Happenstance, Carol Shields 1980 novel about, as the cover blurb describes it, a marriage in transition. It is intended to be two novels, one from HIS point of view and one from HERS. Although interesting reading, Carol Shields’ writing is always somewhat removed from the emotions she writes about, and here it works somewhat to her disadvantage. Sometimes it feels like a writing exercise. A little more contemplation, less chatter, would have added some depth.
Always curious about the male point of view, I started with the husband. He was rather dull, stuck--in his work, in his friendships--but coming to a point of consciousness about it. She, on the other hand, was moving forward, moving out of familiarity. In the course of a few days away from each other, she thinks about and experiences situations and feelings about which she has not and probably will not talk to her husband.
Yet they are one of the “lucky” couples. Where little doubt has crept into their relationship, where, despite, or maybe because of, differences, there is still passion. There is still innocence. Relationship seems to be about respect. Good secrets also are about respect.
Taking a parenthetical break (some artistic chores demand frequent lapses of attention to survive) from the labor intensive task of priming canvases this morning, I thought I heard someone say (on the radio) that life is a comma. Better that life be a coma, a possibility of more to come than a parenthesis (an aside). And not a quotation mark (a comment, not an actuality). Often it just feels like a question. So,
As I roused myself to get up this morning, I remembered a snippet of a dream. That I was comparing my slender (thin) legs to my mother’s, and deciding hers were thinner (skinnier) even though other people were saying they were the same. Thinking about this strange image, I remembered the phrase “not a leg to stand on” and remembered how I feel posting thoughts in an on-line journal, not knowing who will read it (or if) or if it is a thought that can stand on it’s own. And the thought: “stand on your own two legs”, i.e., not my mother’s, that I am doing what I am doing, something new, something old, something borrowed, maybe blue/red/pink/green. And why should I care what other people say about my legs compared to my mother’s, or is it just me (forever) comparing myself to what is “out there”.
Do you remember the children’s book Are You My Mother, in which a little bird falls out of the nest and goes around asking all the animals if they are his mother? Do we fall out of the nest and spend the rest of our lives looking for our mother, looking for reassurance? The little bird finds his mother at the end of the book (of course) and all is well (for him). But eventually he will have to fly off on his own.
It is definitely exciting to hear about and see pictures of the exploration of Mars. Yet I can't help thinking, wouldn't it be nice if that $800 billion dollars be spent on the people needing help alive here on earth, or even some of it.
I woke up this morning to the sound of rain on my tin roof. And thought, how nice, the snow and ice will be melted in my (long) driveway. But when I looked out the window, I saw that everything was covered with more snow. The rain had even more work to do than I had expected. And the snowplows are out again. But it is raining.
I love pink. It’s a naughty color. It’s intense. It demands response. One of the first assignments I gave my Collage class this semester was to do a piece using colors they usually do not like to work with. A majority of the class chose colors that I use often: reds, blues, purples. Pink also was not a popular color. It is too sweet you might think. When really it depends on how you use it.
Sweet can be hard to take, sweet in color, sweet in tone. But if you spice it with a slash of orange or a dot of red or bright green, it is pink of a whole other color. So my next large painting is going to be pink with all the trimmings--sour, bitter and sweet.
As I was driving home yesterday
I thought that perhaps
I should not have
given you such lavish gifts
as pain and suffering,
perhaps I should
take back my mistakes and misunderstanding,
if only I could.
I know perfect childhoods do exist
as do content adults,
but I do not know many close up.
They are not the tulips in my garden.
My wish is for you to see what blooms now.
I love you. Every day.
There has been a lot of talk on CBC radio lately about spanking children. The Supreme Court has ruled that it is okay to exert reasonable physical force when disciplining children, but not before age two or after twelve. This is very upsetting news, to legalize spanking. Although putting a parent in jail for spanking is also questionable. And how is “reasonable force” defined? Who defines it?”
How can it be justified to hit a person smaller and indefensible? And vulnerable. Let’s not forget the vulnerability of being small, young, tender. These assaults leave scars that are deep, fester and mutate. Granted children can be unreasonable, hard to discipline, but there has to be a better way.
And while we are at it, perhaps we can examine the scars left on children by verbal assaults: sarcasm, belittling, betraying, teasing. “Oh, I was just teasing darling. I really am not going to leave you stranded in the middle of the highway just because you won’t stop screaming for the toy you left at home.” Would a two or three year old really understand the complexity of adult frustrations? Or "You want to run away? I'll help you pack your bags" instead of asking what makes the child so unhappy. How can an adult expect respect from a child if the adult does not respect the child's intelligence? (As you can see, I am pretty wound up about this topic of spanking children!)
So what makes a good parent anyway? I’m not sure, being a fallible parent myself. I know that we do make mistakes, some that hurt very deeply. I am exceedingly grateful to my father who, at his 90th birthday party, apologized, in his dignified way, for doing things that hurt. “We just didn’t know any better.” And that’s the truth. We don’t usually know better when we hurt children. But an apology goes a long way. As does kindness. And talking about what hurts.
What does a seven year old girl who has lived in Brazil for the last five years of her life do when she comes to Montreal in January?
Play in the snow
and watch the skaters
and then skate!
Eat in cosmopolitan Montreal restaurants!
Draw with her new pencil crayons in an upbeat cafe!
Go to the Botanical Gardens. It was so cold outside. Nice to be in the warm greenhouses.
Hug her dad.
Pose with the cacti.
Take a picture at the dim sum resaturant of the jello. (She took some really good photos all along the way. A budding photographer. Her grandmother just wanted to show you more of Shaya in Montreal in early January.)
The weather seems to be the main topic of conversation in Canada, especially here in the Maritimes, where the weather is so erratic. And indeed, this winter has been intense. Cold. Not as much snow as last year. But still snow. And cold. (-24 C. in the daytime sometimes and often at night. That's -10 F.)
When I was in school in Rhode Island, we had a little ditty that kept us going through the (similarly erratic, but not so cold) extremes of weather there:
Whether the weather be fair
Whether the weather be hot
We’ll weather the weather
Whatever the weather
Whether we like it or not!