Now, With Feeling

The other day I was moving around the piles in my art area–pretending I was cleaning up–when I came across my first “real” watercolor painting. It is about 12 to 15 years old, and seeing it again surprised me in many ways with the memories it holds.

First, I remembered how disappointed I was when I had finished this painting. Somehow, it did not look the way I had intended. But now that I can no longer remember what I had in mind, I think, “well, it’s not so bad.” Years later, I find I can be easier on myself.

Then I remembered how much effort I had put into this painting: I had taken a recent photograph of my own, enlarged it on a copy machine, then traced it, transferred the tracing to watercolor paper, and then finally started painting. Whew! And the painting had taken hours–when I think about it, I can still feel the tension in my back and shoulders from hunching over that piece for longer than I should have. (It didn’t help that I had no art desk at the time and worked on the coffee table in the living room while sitting on the floor.)

No wonder I stayed away from watercolors for a while!

Today is different. In the past 12 or 15 years, I have learned that if working at art isn’t going to make me relaxed and at peace, I shouldn’t bother. As a result, my style is very different from what I attempted before: simple, sometimes abstracted, and only what I can create in the brief span of time when the kids are occupied with projects of their own. And instead of trying to achieve realism, I’m more interested in expressing feelings and emotions.

Yes, I may have given up my efforts for technical mastery, but I have found what enjoyment art can bring to my life. That seems like a fair trade to me.

Something Different

"It didn't come today--again!"

I use my time with my art journals to relax, to be peaceful, to move my hands–because when I do that, it helps my brain work things out. I try new techniques and new art supplies. I try to get better at drawing. I hardly ever illustrate a struggle I am having or a problem I am experiencing, although I know others do and find it very therapeutic. Instead, my journal is a respite from those things.

Until this week, when I did something different. When I sat down at my art journal, all I could think about was Antonio’s calendar.

But I should start at the beginning: a little while ago I made a calendar for him because, as someone on the autism spectrum, he has a bit of trouble understanding what’s past and what’s future. He lives in the moment, and this presents some problems. For example, three days before Christmas, he started sobbing suddenly. Why? Because he thought Christmas had passed and no one had told him, and he had missed it. With a calendar, we can cross off each day and he can be sure there’s nothing he’ll miss. Using it, we arrived at Three Kings Day without tears! (Although whenever I hear someone preaching that we need to live more “in the now,” I still roll my eyes.)

Recently, Antonio wanted to order a special toy online with some of the money he received for Christmas. Now, most adults that you could ask would tell you that they are satisfied with amazon.com’s shipping speed, but they aren’t 6-year-olds with an autism spectrum disorder. The steps of order processing, shipping from the warehouse, and arriving at our home seemed like torture to him. Each day after the order was placed, I arrived home from work to a disappointed son who would moan, “It didn’t come today–again!”

No matter what I said or did, he just didn’t understand why he didn’t have the toy already. I could not reach him–not through compassion or logic–and that was torture to me.

Of course, once the package arrived, all the waiting was forgotten and he was happy. (Maybe there are a few benefits to living in the moment after all.) Me? All I’m left with is a journal page and a question: what do I do differently next time?

A journal page made just to help me relax

That Yes or No Question

Years ago, I was introduced to a man through my job that I knew immediately must have been through a grim battle. He was polite, smart, and reserved. Yet his solemn mien told me he had stared the undertaker in the eye and said a firm, resounding, “No.”

I never got to know him well, but others who did told me that he had survived cancer. So that explained it.

Since my brain surgery, I often think of him. I feel that in many ways I have said “no” to limitations and defeats of my own, and I wonder if those who meet me see my scars so obviously, like I saw his.

But, the thing is, I don’t want to be known for saying no. I want people to hear me saying “yes” after I have refused defeat.

Not because I think that, in saying “yes,” I have the better, wiser, more complete answer. There are times when you are so injured in your fight that all you can do is manage to stand your ground and say “no,” and that is the bravest, most powerful, best thing you can do. But “no” leaves little room for whimsy and fun. Any joy must be quiet.

For me, the fight is not over once I have said “no” to a circumstance that would defeat me. It continues until I am able to say “yes” to other things, the next things, better things.

I have found that my enjoyment of my sons, art, and life as a whole has to come from a place of yes. I don’t want to feel as if I can no longer doodle goofy hearts, act silly with my three-year-old, or even (get this) forget the whole brain surgery thing for a few minutes. To do any of that, I have to find a way to say “yes.”

Don’t mistake me–I don’t want to seem as if I have never been through trials and tough experiences. Yes, they have forever changed me. But they cannot define me.

Group Hug! (And a humble thank you, too.)

It been about six months, and over a thousand views, since I started this blog. My original goal in writing was to assuage some guilt: many people told me that I should write a book about my brain surgery and recovery–so many and so often that I was afraid that my lack of action was becoming offensive to them. (“Why won’t she listen to us?” I could hear them mutter.)

I didn’t want to seem lazy. And I fully believed (and still do) that if what I learned from my experiences can provide help or comfort to anyone–well, then it was all worthwhile. I was flattered by the suggestions and didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But a whole book? I sense the possibilities, yet with a full-time job and two young kids–do you think I need a new project?

A blog, with brief posts and no deadlines, seemed like the perfect compromise.

So here we are, readers and writer, for my last entry of 2011. And I have to say thank you, because I have learned so much from my readers! You have commented, emailed, and otherwise told me how much a certain post or journal page meant to you. You have shared your own experiences with me. You have given my blog and my artwork your time and attention–two things that always seem in short supply these days! You have given me encouragement and compliments. You have shown me time and again that art and creativity really can connect us all. People seem amazed at my recovery, yet they don’t realize what a large part they have in it. (What, did you think I did this by myself?)

Did I say thank you? Then I need to say it again. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Let’s have a virtual group hug as we head into 2012. I wish great things for all of us!

Five Years Later

Monday, the 19th, will be the five-year anniversary of my brain surgery.

That means it was just a little less than five years ago that I met a man–a friend of a friend–who quietly listened to my husband and I explain my surgery and then shocked us by sharing that he, too, had once been severely affected by a brain injury. In his case, it was a stroke.

It was shocking to me–just two months since my surgery, sitting in a wheelchair, easily fatigued, and struggling even to talk–because this man seemed completely normal. There was nothing about him that hinted at his past physical struggles or any present limitations. “That’s because it happened fifteen years ago; so don’t worry, fifteen years from now no one will ever guess what you’ve been through. I promise.” he told me.

Do you think I believed him? Of course not. I decided that his remarkable recovery was a special case, a miracle, and that I shouldn’t expect the same. I was also filled with skepticism and I wondered how he could so confidently make such a promise. Who did he think he was, anyway? (And then I immediately felt guilty for thinking that, since he was only trying to be nice and offer encouragement.)

I never had a chance to talk to him again, but I’ve often thought of him. Here I am, just five years later, and if I ever divulge my past surgery to an acquaintance, I am met with the same skepticism and disbelief. “I would have never guessed,” people say or, “But there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you.” Of course I still have my limitations–I can never forget or escape them!–but they aren’t so obvious any more.

So, Mr. Terry, let me say that I was wrong to doubt you. You were right; and I hope that, in another ten years, you are even more so.

Speaking Without Words

I am almost finished with my submission for The 2012 Sketchbook Project! Hooray–just one more page to go!

I’ll admit that I was somewhat intimidated at the start of the project, mainly because you are asked to choose a theme for your sketchbook when you sign up online. A theme? None of my journals have ever had a theme! At least, no theme other than “me”: what I am working on, what I am thinking about, and what I am exploring at the time. (Is that too self-centered?)

But whether I am intimidated or not, I generally follow rules; so I signed up and selected a theme from the list that was given without too much fuss. In many places on the website there were encouragements to use the themes as guides and suggestions, not limitations. I still felt a little uneasy. I had decided on “monochromatic,” since I felt that was safe–I could use it to influence my method or media, if not my subjects.

After all, giving my sketchbook a theme–Hopes and Failures, The Worst Story Ever Told, or a similar one from the list of suggestions–would be to bare more than I am ready for. I take comfort in the fact that no one really knows what my doodles, collages, paintings, and journal pages are all about. Their response to anything I put out there remains just that–theirs.

I think back to one of my favorite bands when I was in college, The Cocteau Twins, and how you could never really understand the lyrics that their vocalist was singing. I heard her (Liz Fraser) explain it in an interview this way: that she had some painful experiences, that she wanted to talk about them and express her pain in some way, yet she was afraid to do that, so keeping her lyrics difficult to distinguish kept her protected. She was speaking, but no one could really understand what she was saying. Online, I found this quote from her: “It’s amazing though…I mean really the records are…a representation of our coping skills…”

Yes, it’s more than a little ironic to sing into a microphone and hope that no one understands you, just like it doesn’t make any sense to post art online on this big,vast internet and then refuse to tell anyone what it’s really about. But we all cope in our own way.

My Journal, My Hair

Last night, I tried to draw my hair.

About a week ago, there was a Yahoo! story explaining that someone had spotted a three-inch-long scar just behind the hairline of Princess Kate by carefully looking at a close-up photo. The writer wondered what that scar could be from.

Most of the comments on the story were to be expected (“Who cares?”, “Give her a break!”, and “So what if she’s not perfect!”). My own thought was: Three inches? That’s nothing–mine is almost 13! My second thought was that my hair would never, ever, give me away.

That’s because my thick, wild, wavy, course hair–which has been my bane for most of my existence–keeps my secret for me. My hair hides the scar from my brain surgery completely: no one that I meet can see my scar, and it would take more than a chance close-up with a camera to reveal it. I can feel it there, but only because I have memorized its location. My scar will never tell the secret of my surgery (and even if it yelled, the sound would be muffled by the many, many layers of hair I have).

So now I finally can say that have something better than what a princess does. And my relationship with my hair has changed from “hate” to “love-hate.” This is progress–trust me. The journal page above doesn’t begin to communicate just how incorrigible it is! That would take at least a few more angst-filled journals…

Erased Messages

I journal page I worked on recently with some water-soluble graphite pencils. I took it to work yesterday.

Yesterday, I hung up a recent journal page on the bulletin board in my office. I do that sometimes–it gives me a chance to think about a page or technique, and what does or doesn’t work about it, while I eat lunch at my desk. (I gotta get in that art contemplation time whenever I can!)

Both my bulletin boards (there are two) and my white boards (I have three) at work are full. There are to-do reminders, photos of the kids, schedules and calendars, thank you notes, awards and certificates, and the random journal page or two. Until yesterday, there was also the last two notes from co-workers that were left for me when I was out of the office recuperating from my brain surgery.

Those notes–short and simple but generous in spirit–are precious to me. There were so many of them! I will never forget my first day back at work after medical leave when I walked to my office and found that the white board on my door (where I sometimes post my schedule for the day) had been covered with kind messages from friends at work. “We miss you.” “We love you.” “Can’t wait until you’re back.” I left those messages there for years–three years, in fact. They were encouraging reminders that I saw daily, and they helped me get through some difficult days when I felt exhausted and frustrated by my limitations.

And then, I erased them. Three years after I returned to work, I was suddenly tired of being, “the girl who had the brain tumor.” I decided that my co-workers and I would have plenty of ups and downs to share in the times ahead, and I didn’t have to keep those messages as if they were the only kind words that would ever be written to me. (Plus, the were starting to get smudged.) Those messages were written on my heart and mind–I no longer needed to see them to remember them.

There were also notes handwritten on cards or scraps of paper, and these I moved to my bulletin board. Yesterday, however, there was no space left for the journal page I wanted to put up, so I decided it was time to take down the last two messages. I put them in a drawer. Hung up my journal page. Remembered that I needed to be “future-focused.” And tried to have a normal work day until 5.

Learning to be OK with Uncertainty

A recent journal page with watercolor and colored pencil.

If you lived with me, I might drive you crazy. I am one of those people who have to put their car keys away in the same place every time, otherwise I’ll never be able to find them when it’s time to leave for work. Really–the same exact place. Every single time.

It can be a bit much.

It’s not just the car keys, either. It’s my purse, my phone, my iPod, my ID badge for work, the TV remote. I was even that way about the speed and extent of my recovery from brain surgery until my neurosurgeon set me straight: “You’re not the only one in charge here,” he said kindly. Yet uncertainty is difficult to deal with, and I attempt to remove as much of it from my life as I can. I am sure I can seem like a control freak to my family.

Of course, it gets more complicated when it comes to art. If you look at my earliest collages, you get a sense that I am an artist exercising control. I’ve put each piece in it’s place; I remember one time that I spent about 20 minutes trying to decide if a certain paper would look better in the composition with a torn or cut edge.

But true art doesn’t flourish under the constraints of control alone, and I have made an effort to welcome unplanned and unpredictable elements into my work. As I work on my drawing exercises, I try to welcome unintended pencils marks instead of automatically reaching for the eraser. There is room for discipline, but there should be freedom, too.

I say that because I have learned that capturing spontaneity in artwork is what gives it meaning. It gives energy, emotion, and power to the finished piece. In my case, the finished piece may not have been what I intended–but then, was my intention just to make a pretty picture or was it to create something that makes someone think or feel when they look at it? And what about the fact that while looking for the camera battery charger last week (which was not put away in the right place) I found the iPod case I had been trying to find for months? Wasn’t that an unplanned and unpredicted bit of luck?

I am going to continue practicing giving up control in my art. Maybe, if I get the hang of it, I can start introducing that idea to the rest of my life.

More drawing exercises. Wherever the pencil went, I just tried to "make it work."

Those paint splatters were a bit more uncontrolled than I wanted!

Doing Exercises

The task was to draw with two pencils at once. When I tried it, I invented Cubism! (I am pretty sure this is NOT supposed to happen.)

Last month, I started working out at the gym again. I am finally past my “well, since I can’t run anymore, nothing else is worth it” sulking attitude. It’s taken five years, but I have convinced myself that any exercise is better than none, that running isn’t so great for my knees anyway, and besides, I really need to lose some weight!

Before my brain surgery, I liked going to the gym, working up a sweat, and pushing my body to the limit. But now that I find myself pushing my physical limits almost every day, the idea of spending 20 minutes on the elliptical machine has lost its charm. Still, I have started going to the gym and I am hopeful that the old thrill might come back.

I’m much more excited about the drawing exercises I’ve started. They come from a book I purchased a few weeks ago, “Drawing Projects,” and are assignments from an actual class the authors teach on drawing. The beginning projects seem to focus on getting you comfortable with the variety of marks you can make; one has you draw with two pencils taped together (with both points touching the paper); another has you find a way to attach your pencil to the end of a ruler and draw that way (with the ruler as an “extended arm”).

So far, my results are unpredictable but fun–not yet thrilling, but nothing at all like the elliptical machine. Thank goodness!

Trying to draw with any amount of control is hard when your pencil is at the end of a ruler!

This isn't from an actual exercise--I saw some examples towards the back of the book, got an idea, and just went with it.