Letting it Out

photo for march 12 blog

The other day I listened to a friend vent. And that’s ok–isn’t that what friends are for?

Heaven knows–I’ve had many friends who have let me whine and cry and yell and complain about my life. They’ve listened to me, and then did me an even greater favor: they forgot all about it.

They knew that those fears, anxieties, crazy thoughts, and self-doubts needed to be let out for one big reason: those thoughts weren’t me. My situation wasn’t me. They knew that “letting it all out” was the best way for me to leave it all behind.

When we’re possessed by our bad thoughts, we can fall into the trap of thinking that since our mind created them, they must be part of us. But they aren’t. We can’t let them hijack our mind and soul.

We need to get free of those demons, and find friends that will help us do that.

Taking Back What Is Twisted

A little more than 10 years ago, when I still lived in New Jersey, I attended a two-day workshop with collage artist Jonathan Talbot. It was a wonderful class and the techniques I learned have become staples in my art methods.

But there was a lesson he taught that has followed me even beyond art making.

In the early part of the class, he showed us a page torn from a book. He explained that he would pass around the sheet so we could each tear off a piece to use in a collage. Everyone must tear off a piece, he explained, it was not optional.

When the page came to me, I immediately recognized that it was rag paper–very old rag paper. Plus, the print on it (was it letterpress?) had those funny ‘s’s that look like ‘f’s. I held my breath, tore off a piece, and passed it to the next student.

Once the sheet had made the rounds, Talbot asked us if we knew how old the paper we had just destroyed was. “One hundred years old!” someone guessed. “No, more like 500,” I said, my heart simultaneously racing and sinking. What had I done?

“Yes, 500 is a good guess,” Talbot responded, and everyone in the class groaned. But then he continued, “Ok, before you get too upset, answer this: What language is that on the page?” I looked down at my scrap and saw the phrase, “Gracias al Señor,” or “Thanks to the Lord,” so I said, in practically a whisper, “Spanish…”

“Yes!” he told us. “Anyone hear of the Spanish Inquisition? Good. So what you just tore up was a set of instructions for burning heretics. Now do you all feel better?” Relief passed through the class. “Nothing is too precious to be destroyed,” he concluded, and we went back to our works in progress.

The collage I made that includes that scrap hangs in my living room. I think about Talbot’s point often, and have reached an understanding of what he meant, and also what he didn’t.

That’s because to me, the lesson is also that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. There is nothing that cannot be used as the raw material for art. Nothing is beyond hope.

In Letter 9 of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, one devil explains to another that only God can create, and all tempters can do is twist His creations so that they are used unnaturally. (Devils did not create wine, for example, but they can tempt people to drink too much of it too often.) So I like to remember this: Art allows us to take back what is twisted, to take our own fires of The Inquisition and use that heat and light to restore beauty.

What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

So yes, I enjoy listening to Elvis Costello sometimes, and that song in particular.

But it was NPR that I was listening to when my mind started to wander (sorry, David Green) and I stumbled onto yet another blinding flash of the obvious.

I was thinking about people who are not happy. They may not be unhappy, but still, they feel something is missing, something is not right, and sometimes they are not sure what it is, or why they feel that way. And it makes my heart ache to see this.

I began to wonder why I don’t question myself more about my own happiness. “Do what makes you happy,” and “You deserve to be happy” are statements I hear and accept without skepticism. But should I? Is that all there is? Just being happy and doing what I want? Feeling entitled to something? While there is nothing funny or trivial about happiness, I  believe I might need something more. (And yes, I realize that does sound entitled.)

I realized (and this is what should have been obvious to me) that the question I have become preoccupied with is, “What is God’s will?” I spend more time wondering, “What should I do?” than asking “How do I feel?” It’s more about actions and attitude than about emotions. The emotions are secondary. Peace, love, and understanding are about what you do, not what you feel.

In his book The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton recalls his realization that anyone–anyone!–can be a saint, if they allow God to make them one. That sounds so much easier than it is! And there is no promise that such a path leads to happiness. But it might lead to something greater.

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” –Thomas Merton

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with art, or drawing, or journals. The answer: I’m not sure. But I do know that figuring out what to do depends on your opportunities to be quiet and listen sometimes. And art is a great way to be quiet. Creatively quiet, letting your mind wander into those blinding flashes of the obvious.

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

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.

The Thing Itself

“Not Ideas About the Thing, But the Thing Itself” is a Wallace Steven poem that has fascinated me since I was first introduced to it in college. At the time, it was the most obscure poem I had ever read, and I just couldn’t figure it out. It was a “welcome to college where you’ll find out that you’re not as smart as you think you are” moment. It was a moment of authenticity.

And authenticity is what I think of when I read that poem today; after all, we seem to live in a culture that is hungry for experiences that are direct, immediate, and most importantly, authentic. This has a good side: protesters across the world can take videos with cell phones and instantly upload them to the internet to show us what their totalitarian leaders are really up to. On the other hand, it means that “The Jersey Shore” and other reality shows like it are the most popular shows on television. I have no numbers to prove this,  but instinct tells me that today more people read blogs than newspapers.

There’s more–think of how few people write first novels anymore. They write memoirs instead. And think of how professional wrestling has lost the interest of many, while the UFC is growing. The first time I saw an UFC fight on TV, I told my husband (a blue belt in jiu-jitsu), “But it just looks like two guys in a street fight!” Exactly. Whereas professional wrestling is a performance, this stuff looks real.

Our culture today rejects anything that seems too manufactured, too polished, too precious. We want the real thing.

But what does this have to do with journals and art? I wonder that myself.

It was a little less than 15 years ago when I first saw example of art journals at a presentation given by Tracy and Teesha Moore. The idea that you’d make art that is just for you–just like you’d write a diary that you never intended anyone else to read–and then show it, was so new that it was a shock to me. But now art journals and sketchbooks are hardly new; in fact, they seem to be all over. There’s the 1000 Journals Project. The Sketchbook Project. There are books and books of examples and how-to’s; there are websites, too.

It used to be that artists’ sketchbooks were private places where they worked out the challenges of larger, finished pieces that were intended for a wider audience. The finished piece was “the real thing.” Today the opposite seems to be true–those raw, unfinished pages seem more real. More genuine.

And so even if the popularity of “the Jersey Shore” makes me worry, more sketchbooks–and more art–in the world doesn’t.