…and that’s how it goes…

I am sure anyone creative has experienced one or more of these extremes: you have time, but no inspiration; you have plenty of  ideas, but no time; you have both time and ideas, until you sit down and are facing a blank piece of paper, at which time either a child starts demanding attention or all your ideas evaporate. This past week I’ve experienced all three.

Taking those distance learning classes through Ithaca Collage  has really cut down my art time, my online time, my reading time … my time for everything! I am glad I am taking the classes because I am learning so much, most of which I can apply to my job immediately. I certain these nine months of hectic living will be worth it, even if I seem to be complaining.

However, I miss making art! I miss seeing the art of others online! Sigh…

My current compromise is this–be simple. Since I am only going to have a brief amount of free time to devote to art, I need to sketch something small, something uncomplicated, something I can finish fast. Either that, or it has to be something I can break down into simple steps, so I can put the piece away at a moment’s notice and then pick it up later (whenever “later” comes).

Doing pieces like this 4×4″ simple sketch of a branch keeps me from feeling like I have abandoned my sketchbook. Yes, I’ve already drawn branches just like this one a million times. But I tried to make it look more interesting by doing the sketch on a map–something colorful, instead of white paper. And no, it’s not my best sketch ever. But for now, it’s good enough!

Dreamers, Keep on Dreamin’

Most of you know that my brain surgery was six years ago. And some of you know that before my surgery, I ran about 10 miles a week.

I loved running. It was a chance to be outside and appreciate each season and its own unique beauty. It was a way to be fit. I felt accomplishment when I finished a 5K. And running cleared my head when I needed to turn off my brain for a little while.

So when I was recovering from my surgery and barely able to walk, the question of how soon I could return to running was always on my mind. It was a painful question, but not as painful as the look that would flash across the face of any physical therapist or doctor I put the question to. They would stumble through some non-committal answer, and I would realize that they didn’t want to hurt me with the truth, but didn’t want to lie to me either.

Finally, someone explained to me that my balance might not every be good enough to run again. Asking my body to successfully land on one foot–essential for running!–was asking too much. So, I pretended to drop the subject.

Then, I really did drop it. With work and kids and art, who has time to exercise, let alone run?

But last week I remembered Jill Bolte Taylor saying in her book that she didn’t feel she was completely healed until she could water ski again, 8 years after her stroke. Eight years and she never gave up! (There’s a link to her TED talk on my “More About Brain Injuries” page.)

So since I was out for a walk and no one was looking, I decided to try it. I would see if I could run. If I landed flat on my face, then I’d try again in another few months.

The amazing thing is, I could do it! Now, it’s not a regular run–it’s definitely a brain-surgery-patient run, but it’s more than I have been able to do for six years. My feet leave the ground; I come down on them one at a time. (Yay, me!) And it feels great. Yes, my knees are killing me, but who cares? I ran! Just a couple of yards at a time, but I did it a few times and didn’t fall. Amazing.

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.

Drawn to Dreamland

A detail from the Unicorn Tapestries.

Sometimes, the stress of everyday life seems too much. I race from meeting to meeting at work, race around helping to take care of the boys when I get home, and by the time my body collapses into bed, my mind is racing. Sleep can seem a long time off.

So I’ve started taking 15 to 30 minutes at night once the boys are asleep–no matter how tired my body feels and no matter how many dishes are in the sink–to draw. I find an image from an art book at home and copy it (or just a portion of it). It works wonders for relaxation!

Because I am copying another’s work, this exercise is both good practice and pressure-free. (I don’t have to spend mental energy trying to be creative or original.) It must also be good for my mental health, because once I close my sketchbook, I immediately drift into a trouble-free dreamland.

Ahhh…

From the movie set model for Gormenghast Castle.

From William Moriss's Chrysanthemum Wallpaper.

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!

Searching for a Psalmist

Acts 9:3-4

I sometimes ask myself: now that I have recovered so much since my brain surgery, what’s next? What is the point of such a miracle if I waste it?

There are days when I feel that the only right response to the gift of recovery is to honor God with every journal page I create. But then I find myself aimlessly doodling things I like, or making a collage of what feels good, and I can hardly scold myself. I gain so much peace of mind from the time I spend with my art journal, it would be wrong to call it “a waste,” even when the images don’t refer to religion, or spirituality, or the Bible. I want to honor God, but I don’t think would be right for my journal to become a chore or my art time to be when I ask myself if I have been holy enough. Such a burden doesn’t seem like the point of my recovery, either.

After all, even Bono’s lyrics vary a bit.While he often sings of his questions to and his search for God in a raw and honest way, that is not the only subject he explores in his music. Nevertheless, in his songs I often here the voice of the Psalmist–and as Thomas Merton says, “The Psalms are songs of men who knew who God was.”

That’s the kind of voice I am searching for! So even if I wander from that path, it is still my goal. Enjoy the holiday season, everyone!

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…