Searching for Shapes

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.–Michelangelo

"Hope + Expectation = Faith"

Sometimes when I am working in my journal, I see “something” in the inked or painted background I’ve created:  an image that calls out to be traced in pen or pencil. Something simple, uncomplicated, and direct that is suggested by the shapes the background has created.

Yet even though the image leaps out of the background before me with absolute confidence and certainty, it seems like a risk to me to follow that vision. The image I think I see is never what I intended for that background or that journal page, and I wonder if I’m becoming a bit like those little old ladies who see the Virgin Mary in their toast.

Yes, I hesitate; but the urge to follow that call always overcomes me. And in the end I am always satisfied with the results. It’s not because I think that the finished piece is a great work of art or because I feel that I have something in common with Michelangelo–it’s more a feeling of relief, like when you’ve finally had a chance to say what’s been on your mind.

The blue streaks suggested the fingers of a hand to me the day I created this page.

Feeling Lucky

When I sit and quietly work in my journal, I can be present to the truth.

There are mornings when I forget.  I wake up without my constant struggles–like to walk and to balance–on my mind. But then I move to sit up and swing my legs over the edge of the bed, and the clumsy response of my body is a crushing blow.

All the frustration comes rushing back as I stumble out of the bedroom.

What am I now? Sometimes I can only think of what I am not: I am not the girl who used to get up early on the weekends, walk three miles to Starbucks, then relax with a new novel and my coffee. And I am not the girl who used to run 10 miles a week and loved it. And I am definitely not the girl people would look at and say, “You’re a lot stronger than you look,” when I’d carry a box or move a recliner.

That’s not me any more. Now I am a person who left behind all grace and dignity as I clawed my way out of the black hole that this brain tumor shoved me into. I know I am lucky to be alive; I have gained back many more abilities than the doctors ever thought I would. But sometimes, I get tired of being thankful.

Sometimes, I get tired of everything being an effort. I think of having to make that effort every single day for the rest of my life and I am overwhelmed with exhaustion by the thought. And then I think about how my type of tumor could come back at any time without warning, and the next time it could kill me.

That’s when I realize that being exhausted by life is a privilege.

Drawing Out The Demons

How did he get here?

Maybe it was because I was reading Linda Barry’s book, 100 Hundred Demons!, for the fifth or sixth time. (A great book that I would recommend to just about anyone.) Maybe it was because I had been flipping through the pages of a biography of Remedios Varo and admiring her Aquiline nose. (She’s one of my favorite artists.) Or maybe it was because I had promised myself that for my next journal pages, I would think less and just do more. And maybe it was a bit of all of those.

I’m not sure why last weekend, after I not-too-carefully created a background for my next journal page (thinking less, doing more), I immediately felt that the page “needed” the head of a Roman statue in the lower left. It was the simply the first thought that entered my head, and I was so confident that it was right, I went with it without question.

Since I had no idea how to draw the head of an ancient Roman statue, I pulled out some art history books to look at some examples and get some ideas. After that, I sat down and drew some basic attempts. So far, so good. I still liked the idea, and I was still confident the composition of the page would turn out nicely. (And no, I had no clue what it meant that I wanted to draw a Roman statue in my journal. Remember, I was trying to think less. It didn’t even occur to me that I do not have the skills needed to copy the work of some of the greatest artists of all time.)

Next, I got my journal out, turned to the page, and drew the head of the statue with my very creamy, very black, Derwent drawing pencil. I looked at the finished page. And my first thought was, “How did he get here?”

Because in my attempt to draw a Roman, I had really draw an ex-boyfriend. The one I dated through most of high school. The one I lived with for three years after graduating college. The long nose and small mouth, with that same expression he would get when he’d close his eyes and tell me exactly why my behavior was so disappointing to his upscale, uptight family–yep, that was him.

Looking at the page, I felt a little weird. How could he still be haunting my mind? How dare he show up in my artwork, uninvited? I put the journal away and didn’t work in it again for three days.

But three days later, I felt better. I decided that since he had been reduced to a two-dimensional piece of paper, he would no longer hurt me. And I thought about how my journals should be a place where I resolve issues–not re-live them. But most of all–I am not about to let an old boyfriend keep me from creating in my journal.

So I promise to be more accepting of other demons who make an appearance on my journal pages. If I’m going to draw, I need to be willing to see what gets drawn out.

The Balancing Act

Beauty of the sunlight falling on a tall vase of red and white carnations and green leaves on the altar in the novitiate chapel. … The “simplicity” that would have kept those flowers off the altar is, to my mind, less simple than the simplicity that enjoys them there but does not need them to be there.” –Thomas Merton

"Lifted," a journal page I completed August 18, 2011.

It seems that ever since my brain surgery I am caught between pretending and pity. Years later, I am still trying to find a balance between the two.

On any given day, I am probably pretending that everything is OK and that all the changes to my body and mind–and all the challenges added to each daily task–aren’t too much for me to handle. I let people think that I can take it all in stride.

Of course, it’s hard to keep up that kind of pretending–but what’s the alternative? Pity. As soon as I admit that there are things I cannot do, or even go so far as to confess that there are parts of my previous life that I’ve totally given up, people look at me differently. Even if they try to hide it, I can see the pity start to creep into the corners of their eyes.

Once I’ve been honest, people feel badly for me and wonder what my life must be like. They imagine what it might feel like to be me.

And suddenly, although all I’ve done is explained why I was too slow to catch an elevator or clumsily knocked over a coffee cup, I have reminded them of the brutal truth of how fragile our bodies can be. I have made them think of their own mortality.

So it’s no wonder they distance me with pity. The truth is hard for me to take, too. I’d much rather pretend. For as long as I can.

A Commercial Announcement

Ahhh, sweet shopping surprises!

For some, it’s the perfect pair of pants. For others, it’s the ideal decor item for their home. For me, a beautiful blank journal is what’s  irresistible.

Of course, when shopping, it’s the unexpected find that is sweetest. It’s those times when you’re out and about to accomplish some mundane task, but are savvy enough to recognize the treasure waiting for you–that’s what really shows your shopping skill. (After all, it’s not the same if you just find what you are looking for.  Where’s the triumph and surprise in that?)

So… Just the other day I was at Marshall’s trying to find a birthday present for a four-year-old girl that I don’t know very well, who I was determined not to spend more than $20 on, and whose party was the next day. I was goal-oriented, yet uncertain. So I wandered the aisles of the store, even after I had chosen a present for her–you know, just in case there was something better hiding behind the next corner. You know how Marshall’s is.

And somewhere in the gifts/stationery/home office aisle, I came upon these wonderful journals, the best shopping surprise I’ve had since I spotted that shirt for $9.98 at Banana Republic a few months ago. Wonderful Italian papers on the covers. Heavyweight paper with the color and texture of eggshells inside. Made in Italy, and with that elegant “tall and thin” ratio you see so often used for European magazines. (They measure 9×13″.) They were just $4 each. As another editor at work would sum it up: *swoon.*

There were three on the shelf; I bought two, not wanting to be greedy. (Who knows, there could be another journal artist in my neighborhood who also should experience these beautiful books!) I hurried to the check-out, probably passing by the perfect pair of pants.


Beautiful Ugly

You only enjoy what you are good at.” (–not sure who)

A simple idea that I reworked several times in my journal.

What if I love to draw, no matter what it looks like?

I ask myself this question a lot, because it’s a bit of a dilemma. After all, drawing is a visual art, and I am pretty sure art is supposed to look good.

But sometimes when I scribble, I have no real objective–and that’s the point of doodling, right? It’s to keep your hand (and part of your mind) occupied while the rest of you is busy doing something else. For me, that”something else” is a relaxed mental state that allows me to review, in my mind, whatever is troubling me in a non-judgemental way.

I work out problems. I temporarily forget disappointments. I feel hopeful that things will get better.

When I draw, or doodle, or makes marks on paper, of whatever you call it, or when I create a collage, it feels like I’m writing out a story without words. This means that I don’t have to try to find the right way to say something or even worry about grammar. I don’t have to wonder if someone will read it and misunderstand me, because I’m not trying to send a clear, comprehensible message. I can get it all out on paper, but feel safe at the same time.

So I keep working in my art journals, although most of the pages will never be “nice” enough to post to flickr or facebook. Because while the results might be ugly, but the process is beautiful.

Journals: By the Numbers

A simple journal page from one of the four journals I'm working in right now.

Some simple stats…

The number of  journals have I completed: 18

For how many years have I kept an art or visual journal?: 14

How many blank journals are in my art cabinet, waiting to be filled?: 6  (How many of those are Moleskines?: 3)

The number of art journals I am working in right now: 4  (That’s the most I’ve ever had going at once!)

The number of novels and memoirs that I started to read last month but put aside for my journals: 3

How many of my completed journals are now lost because I lent them to a friend who proved unworthy of that trust?: 2

The number of journals I currently have on loan to friends: 0

How Can I Forget?

I am forever changed by my brain surgery--but will I always be defined by it?

Just the other day a friend said to me, “You know you’re a walking miracle, right?” I smiled and said, “Of course,” knowing that I have regained much more since my brain surgery than the doctors expected. (That seems like a miracle for sure!)

But in truth, I had forgotten. Yet… how can being a miracle slip my mind? How can I forget to be grateful for being alive?

I had spent the first two years after my surgery high on all the small, constant improvements that I saw in my abilities. I worked hard at my therapies with perseverance and drive. There were days when I would feel depressed or get discouraged, but I never let those times slow me down for long.

For the first two years, the reliable pattern was this: I would work hard and do what I was told by doctors and therapists, and I would be rewarded by gaining back some skill–holding a pen to write, walking without a cane–that the surgery had taken away.

Because of my small successes, I began to feel as if I had some bits of wisdom and words of comfort to offer others facing a difficult situation. “If just one person has their pain eased by talking to me–if I can help just one person feel better–then everything I have gone through is worthwhile.” That’s what I constantly told myself and anyone else who will listen.

The night that Adan, my second son, was born, one of the pastors from my church came to visit me in the hospital. I told him that the only reason that God had healed me was to show the world that anything is possible, that He can do anything, and that miracles still happen. I felt lucky, blessed, honored.

While I still believe that, I realize today that I have come to accept my limitations as my “new normal.” What I once worked so hard for–the ability to stand in the shower or drive to work–have become everyday activities. All that I have accomplished makes it easy to forget how hard I worked and how lucky I am.

But it’s good to be reminded.

I titled this collage, "Memories." It's a piece I created years ago, but was never really happy with. Just the other day I reworked it.

Before and After: Visual Proof

"Before"--a composition with cuts that now seem too intricate to achieve.

Once I fully realized–and it took a while before I did–how much I had lost after my brain surgery, holding on to the things I still had a grasp on became almost an obsession.

I had lost the ability to keep time to music, to dance, to run, to balance. I could no longer sing (even with the radio), and for almost a year after my surgery, I couldn’t drive a car. Those things were gone forever; after all, it was only after months of intense therapy that I could walk, feed myself, and hold a pen to write. I felt as if I was no longer myself.

So art became important because it was one of the few things from my life “before” that I could still enjoy “after”–it was a part of me that I could hold onto. At least, I hoped I could. I remember crying for at least an hour the first time I tried to use a pair of scissors with my occupational therapist. (What a disaster that was! I would have gotten a neater edge just by tearing the paper.)

It took a long time before I would create a journal page or collage that I wasn’t too embarrassed to show others. When I finally did, it was my way of saying, ” See, some part of the old me is still alive. Here–look at this–I have proof.”

An "after" entry in my journal. As I take a step in a new direction, I can't help but glance back.