Taking a chance

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Today, I’m celebrating my 10-year anniversary of making a major decision, one important step in getting me to where I am today, an act of courage in walking away from a toxic relationship.

Life is uncertain. A lot of people opt for the devil they know — but I believe that walking into not knowing is the better option, even if it is scary to take that first step.

I can’t say that I haven’t made the same mistakes or sprinted head-first into the same traps. “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other,” Benjamin Franklin wrote.

At least, we fools are learning, improving constantly and moving forward.

Freedom is a worthy pursuit — as is making an effort to surround yourself with people who believe in you instead of those actively trying to tear you down.

Sometimes all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, close one door with faith that another will open and let go of fear of uncertainty. Because uncertainty is inevitable.

My friend, the talented pianist Chance Hunter, repeated this Winston Churchill quote to me on the phone recently, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

It’s not that you will necessarily get better, be safer or forget the painful memories — it’s just that you have to keep moving.

And by virtue of heading onward into that wild, chaotic world, you will end up in places you didn’t even know existed and you wouldn’t have even dreamt of going.

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Lefts instead of right

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My new painting-in-progress “I Dream At Night of Going Home Someday”

The other day, a letter that I mailed quite some time ago to my friend and great inspiration, poet Aimee Herman, arrived back in my mailbox, undeliverable due to my ever-increasingly illegible handwriting.

It’s strange to re-read something you wrote about a month ago, in a completely different mindset. I realized that I was whining quite a bit in the letter about where I live, not feeling at home and not connecting to the people around me. I thought about not sending the letter and instead placing it in the recycling bin — but instead I more carefully addressed an envelope.

My friend Stan and I were talking the other day about how some people prefer to stick with their comfort zones — but that we both like to do things that push our limits. I seek out experiences that make me slightly uncomfortable. “One of the reasons I want to go on a long sailing trip, out way into the middle of the ocean, is because it partially terrifies me,” I told him, as we sat on the beach in Lincoln Park watching the ferry load up and head out to Vachon Island.

Stan, Joanna and I took sailing lessons a couple of years ago in Galveston Bay. I loved it for so many reasons, but mainly because everything was new and challenging. In our day-to-day lives, especially as we get older, our routines are filled with things we know how to do well. We become masters at work, masters at loading the dishwasher, wonderful at planning our routine days and experts at talking to our long-time friends.

On a sailboat, I realize, I don’t know how to read the sun to know what time it is or to determine which direction we’re heading. The captain asks me, “Which way is the wind blowing?” And I don’t know. At night, he shows us how to navigate by the stars, and I wish that I had studied constellations. There are whole glossaries of words to learn, lists of knots that I don’t know how to tie, rules of navigation that no one ever told me about, charts I have no idea now to read.

Today, I was reading an article in the New York Times by Kim Tingley about sailors in the Marshall Islands that navigate without instruments. She writes about how scientists were studying these sailors: “They wondered if watching him sail, in the context of growing concerns about the neurological effects of navigation-by-smartphone, would yield hints about how our orienteering skills influence our sense of place, our sense of home, even our sense of self.”

How connected place, home and sense of self seem to be — and how easily we can be disconnected from each.

Apparently, several articles have been written about how our reliance on smartphone GPS technology is changing the way we see the world.

“When we use GPS, the research indicates, we remember less about the places we go, and put less work into generating our own internal picture of the world,” Leon Neyfakh writes in an article on the subject for the Boston Globe.

It really comes as no surprise to me that Aimee would send me a challenge in the mail. She is good at sensing what subject I should dive into, whether reluctantly or not. She asks me to spend time this month exploring. She tells me to get lost. “Make lefts when you usually go right,” she wrote in her letter, along with many other suggestions.

When I texted her later this morning to thank her for setting me out on this journey, she replied, “I guess I really wanted to remind you ways to fall in love or like with a place. That map is in you. You are the map.”

 

 

On Time

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My friend Justin Dunford once told me that artists suffer, because they have something they want to do so badly it makes it difficult to do anything else.

I’ve been starting every morning painting in an attempt to remind myself that I have some control over my own time. But as soon as my morning session is up, the day descends into the chaos of working as a freelance reporter — non-stop phone interviews, looming deadlines and calls from stressed-out, frantic editors.

I am desperate for more time to create. And honestly just time to think clearly about things, and the space to not think, which is so essential to the artistic process.

Today I had the type of morning that made me just want to crawl back into bed and press reset. Instead, I had to keep calling sources, rearranging photo shoots, taking notes. Finally, I took a nap.

My phone kept ringing anyway, and I woke up in a haze. I couldn’t think clearly, and so just laying there, I read an excerpt from Brain Pickings — which noted that psychologist Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi felt “the poet’s responsibility to be a witness, a recorder of experience, is part of the broader responsibility we all have for keeping the universe ordered through our consciousness.”

Csiksgentmihalyi interviewed poet Mark Strand, who said, “we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.”

I believe that he’s onto something. If being alive is about being a witness, taking it all in and describing the wonder of the world — then being an artist is a worthy calling. At least for me, painting is about looking at the world, feeling deeply and trying to communicate what I see and learn to others.

Recently, I went to the True/False Film Festival and among the great documentaries I saw was “The Music of Strangers” about Yo-Yo Ma and his amazing music. He said the purpose of art and music is to “give us meaning.”

“You can turn fear into joy,” he says.

 

A Little Perspective

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View from my driveway

I can clearly remember the first time I heard Eliza Gilkyson’s song “Not Lonely.” I was at the Kerrville Folk Festival, and it blew me away. For awhile, “People say I should be lonely/ But that ain’t what’s goin down/ I’m alone but I’m not lonely,” became a bit of an anthem to me, more of an aspiration perhaps than what I really felt.

Being alone is not always a choice, I have learned from experience. So why not find a way to enjoy it while you can?

I try to stop every once and a while and breathe it all in. Last night, as I was walking the dogs, the sky was illuminated just so, that almost orange-ish-black that happens at the beginning of the darkness. The tall pines in the distance became shadows, silhouettes and the clouds formed in low lines and slowly drifted up. I felt small — just a witness to the constant wonder of the world.

I decided to go out for a drink in my old neighborhood. I have been thinking lately that perhaps I am becoming too much of a recluse. Maybe I should be out in the world. But it’s a difficult balance — being an artist requires you to spend most of your time alone with your half-finished canvases. I have tried to let go of the guilt that I once felt when I preferred to stay in the studio rather than to go out and socialize.

But then again sometimes I find myself humming one of my favorite Joni Mitchell songs, “Oh I am a lonely painter/ I live in a box of paints/ I’m frightened by the devil/
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.”

I admit to myself that that’s more true to me than “alone and not lonely.” I try to be brave.

As I walk around from crowded bar to crowded bar, I resolve that I just don’t fit in to the scene that night. I don’t want to step inside anywhere. And I don’t relate to the drunken kids rambling out on the street. I feel like an observer and not a participant. It makes me kind of sad. Then, a bit of light shines on the sidewalk, and I recognize a face. This singer-songwriter I know, Dean Johnson, was standing on the curb — and luckily for me, persuadable when I asked if he wanted to grab a quick drink.

We found an open spot at a bar and talked about the writing process, past broken hearts and loneliness. We talked about facing fears and how hard it can be to walk into the time that is required to make art.

This morning, I listened by chance to a rather depressing episode of “This American Life” about a woman who dies alone and the deputy who goes through her things, trying to find a connection to someone living who can take care of emptying the left-behind residence of a lonely pack rat. “When someone keeps to herself, there’s no way to know whether she lived and died outside the reach of friends and family because she preferred it that way or because of things beyond her control,” the narrator says.

I wonder how many people I have pushed away and from how many I have run away. Sometimes it was self-preservation and sometimes it was fear. Now that I am feeling more courageous and more wild and more connected, I want to build community and want to work on lasting, loving friendships, I feel more drawn to lonely spaces of studio and empty journals than ever. I’m not sure which way is the right path to follow.

“I live in a one-room palace, On top of a hill, On the edge of a wilderness, All my dreams could never fill . . . Got two hands to guide me, Through one very long dance, Got a true heart inside me,Gonna give me one more chance, To be alone, not lonely.”

And I’m grateful for those rolling clouds up in the sky, the energy of falling night time, all those separate street scenes, even the rambling drunks who don’t even notice me like I’m a ghost out on the street — and most of all grateful for Dean who did notice me, who did share some real, genuine thoughts and for the even later calls I got from old friends — Kevin , Steven , Justin and my darling cousin Alex — who made me laugh at myself for ever thinking I was alone at all.

 

Birthday Blues

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I have to admit that I have a bad case of the birthday blues. It all started with my computer crashing on my birthday eve — right around noon for no apparent reason.

I spent the day on the phone with Apple Support, then at the Mac store. I felt like Harold in that ending sequence of my favorite movie — where he begs and pleads with the hospital staff to save Maude’s life, but alas . . . Similarly, I moved between anger to tears at the Mac shop as they informed me that I would lose all the writing I had done, photos I had taken and music I had stored over the past year.

And I cycled again through the same emotions as they explained to me their prices for not helping me save my suddenly suicidal machine — but simply to restore my one-year old computer to being functional.

My actual birthday was basically spent in an anxiety attack trying to figure out how to met all my mounting work deadlines with no tool for typing. After attempting to purchase a tablet and keyboard as a back-up plan from Best Buy, I went home to find the products that the salesman had promised would work for me, in fact, would not.

Disheartened from a failed day, I concluded my birthday by crying by myself in a bar until my dear cousin rescued me and saved the day. It was just the loss of all my writing — creative and otherwise, and all my photos, including from the Art Farm, photos of my friends over the years and photos of my paintings, now all gone.

But also, as we grow older, birthdays are so tied into what we hope to accomplish and what goals we have not met yet, the passage of time, loneliness and changing friendships. My friend Justin reminded me that friends are busier now — with children, houses, routines. And that can make for lonelier, solitary birthdays.

And then, I got notice of a speeding ticket and I’m practically the slowest driver in the neighborhood. I checked the stars and sure enough Mercury is in retrograde and I should have spent the past two weeks safely in bed.

Two days later and here we are. I still haven’t heard back from the Mac shop. I’m typing away on my cousin’s old, bulky — but yay still functional — borrowed laptop. I’m late on all my deadlines, behind on all my calls and exhausted. I haven’t painted since Tuesday. I’m feeling like a failure and yet . . .

I still am going through the motions and pushing myself. Today I went to my second ballet-for-adults lesson. Our instructor guided us through the French words for lifting your pointed toes to the left, the front, the back. We moved from first to second to fifth position and stretched on the bar and laughed while we sloppily learned basic waltz steps.

The teacher Christine told us that she is stricter with her younger students. She likes to push them, because she explained they seem so timid these days, so much more afraid of getting hurt than we were in our rambunctious childhoods.

She talks about how she and her brothers used to climb trees and get scraped up on the bark and how they would play Red Rover and push so hard against the inter-locked limbs of the children on the opposing team, to break their chains by running hard and fast enough.

“The point is to get hurt and see that you heal,” she said. “You learn that you’ll live.”

Life is an experiment

DSC_0380.JPGCarmella Guiol Naranjo

Carmella and I are in the middle of the woods, huddled over a candle, on a wooden deck overlooking the trees. It’s been about seven months since we last did this –a new moon ceremony. It’s her birthday, and she is brimming with thoughts and intentions about community, love and friendship. I say that my goal is to stop spending time with people who I don’t actually like, to be more aware of how I spend my time in general, to make choices that are better when it comes to those precious free hours and minutes.

The next day, Carmella says, “I want to do more new things.” She has plans to go to Mexico this time next year. We sketch out a future trip to India. She talks about the next steps after earning her M.F.A.

My birthday is in seven days from today — and I too am full of thoughts of future. I have so much I want to accomplish. I think back on my 33rd year, and while it was full of highs and lows — and some very deep lows at that — I believe adventure outweighed dullness. And I am seeking light after all.

Last year, at this time, I didn’t even know Carmella. Or any of the amazing women I met at the Art Farm who have become dear friends. At this time last year, I was not in a good place. I haven’t quite put my finger on it — but I felt tired, exhausted, out of sorts. Today, I am hurtling through the air on a plane, day-dreaming of my next adventure.

To kill time on my voyage, I have been deleting old photos on my computer and stumbled upon a snapshot I took of an article. I don’t know who wrote this but it rings pretty true to me:

“If the historical circumstances had changed, the ancient purpose of literature, to say something about human life, never did. In every age, art is an experiment for every artist, just as, in every age, life is an experiment for every person.”

I’ve quoted this Peter London passage before in my blog but I think it’s worth repeating — “Unless a courageous stance to life is coupled with these ingredients [dexterity,knowledge, taste], tedious and shallow things will be made. Unless a capacity to dream and fantasize is there, derivative things will be made.”

I feel like facing fear has made for better art on my studio walls these days, and I look forward to seeing where the next year takes me.

“You never get nothing by being an angel child
You better change your ways and get real wild
I wanna tell you something, I wouldn’t tell you a lie
Wild women are the only kind that really get by
‘Cause wild women don’t worry, wild women don’t have their blues.”

— Ida Cox, Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues

To learn more about Carmella, who describes herself as “a girl with ants in her pants who wants to learn how to sit her butt down and write,” visit her blog www.therestlesswriter.com.

Will You Dance?

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Painting in Progress — “So Many Dreams We’re Not Prepared to Know”

Yesterday I was lamenting to my roommate about the start of another year. I said, I can’t believe that this one went by so quickly. And I was even more distressed that in less than a month, I will be another year older.

Last birthday, I promised myself that I would get my shit together this year, I told Rob.

“What’s the point of that?” he asked. “All you’re left with then is a pile of shit. And no one wants that.”

I laughed at the absurdity of the phrase. But he’s right. It’s no way to think — the constant pressure of finally figuring everything out. And I am certainly on a quest to make a change, to do better — and I have to remind myself constantly that it is just a journey. One that will most likely last a lifetime.

My friend Chance spent some time talking later in the day about how easy it is to focus on what’s wrong in your life instead of all the good that surround you. It’s something that I am working on improving. Instead of running over and over the things that hurt me, the people who wronged me and the several bad memories, why not think about the love, the support, the sympathy and camaraderie that I have most days?

“The world isn’t tidy,” the fantastic street photographer Garry Winogrand said. “It’s a mess. I don’t try to make it neat.”

It’s not our job to fix anything or to make the chaos of life fit into some neat tidy box. Instead, look, learn, watch, accept, create — repeat.

“Life is an ecstasy,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

Peter London said, “Sleep surrounds us. Keep awake.”

He said some people see the world as a supermarket, a place to acquire things. Others see life as a dance — a world of partners, experience, music, whirling – and we can opt to go twirling out among the action.

He asks:

“Will you? Won’t you? Will you join the dance?”

 

Being On Time

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Working on my painting “Further and Further Away from Nowhere”

I couldn’t find my grandfather’s grave. I thought I would remember from the funeral. But when I finally reached the cemetery, I was at a loss. It was bigger than I remembered. I should have realized that in grief, I would not note which pathways led where and which stone would mark where my grandparents remained.

I asked Stan to drive up and down the lanes that criss-crossed the graveyard. Maybe we’d see it from the car — or suddenly I would remember. Stan pointed out large markers that read “Peyton.” No, we’re looking for something smaller, I said. There’s something about reading your name on a headstone . . .

I finally gave in and stopped by the small office in the back of the cemetery. A man walked up and said he might be able to help me. How long ago did he pass? he asked me. I said, about a year ago actually. I hadn’t realized that much time had gone by. About a year, actually.

Lately, I have been fixated on how quickly the years pass. The holidays do this to me — I think about where I was last Halloween, last Thanksgiving, last Christmas, last New Year, last birthday. It scares me that all of those days simultaneously feel like yesterday and like a gulf of change separates them from me.

When I was at the Art Farm, the days lingered. I felt like I accomplished so much in 24 hours. I wrote my morning journal, I worked on the farm for four hours a day, I wrote an article for the newspaper, I painted until evening. We had communal meals, every meal. We had happy hours. We had evenings candlelit and full of laughter. We had time to make it to the lake for a swim, and I had time to fit in my run as well.

Now, back in reality, I feel like I’m lucky to fit in two or three things a day. Like a run and work feels good — and I’m fortunate if I still have time to paint. Why did time speed up so much? Why are my hours so fleeting now? How do I slow them down?

“We swim in time; it is the medium of our living,” Peter London writes in “No More Secondhand Art.” “Duration alone creates heroes and cowards, victory and defeat.”

Having more time to do what I actually want to do seems like the ultimate luxury — and it is, also, in fact my immediate goal. Instead of feeling like I don’t have time to draw, or that I can only squeeze in an hour to paint, I want to live a life around art.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard said.

 

Lengths to go

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Untitled Painting in Progress

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem on the Unending Fight for Women’s Rights.”

The premise was that the two friends sat down and reminisce about the past in Ginsburg’s office. The women — both now in their 80s, talk about not being able to rent apartments without a male signer, how women used to go to college to find husbands, how  women had to justify taking a spot from a man when applying to law school. Steinem talks about how Gay Talase told her once, “Every year, a pretty girl comes to New York and pretends to be a writer. This year, it’s Gloria.”

I was thinking about how recent of a past this window of an article opened up. These are realities that my grandmothers, aunts and mother faced — and I believe are still prevalent today in a number of ways.

I believe that the art world is still a boy’s club.

When I started painting, I wanted to create portraits of strong women. I wanted to paint women who looked like they were thinking and feeling — not just posing as objects, not just a body to be sexualized. I wanted my women to look courageous — like the women in my real life, the ones who inspired me every day, my grandmother, my teachers, my family, my friends.

I noticed that when I had my first shows, women reacted to the paintings and thought they were beautiful. Most men did not.

Often men would say to me, “How can you paint such sad pictures when you are such a happy, pretty girl?”

It infuriated me. These guys didn’t know me. They didn’t know  my emotions, my thoughts, my story. But even more importantly, I felt that if I had painted portraits of pensive men, they would not have thought twice about it. In our culture, the image of a woman thinking is so rare that we equate it with sorrow.

There have been several times that men in the art world have openly criticized my work at a show — and I would be willing to bet that they would not have been so forthright if I were a male painter. Once, my ex-boyfriend’s patron said to me that I was much like the drawings of flowers I was creating at the time — very pretty, but without substance. And fleeting.

More shocking to me, however, was the time an older woman printmaker came to one of my shows and said, “There are women who are talented — and then there are those artists who are just pretty girls who get a lot of attention,” while she gestured around at my crowded exhibit.

It took a long time for me to build a core of supportive women artists in Houston. Luckily, I eventually had regular lunches with Angela Dillon and Maria Queta Hughes, who encouraged me and showed me another way we could treat each other — not with jealousy but with respect.

In the New York Times article, the author Philip Galanes writers, “Rejection is the best thing that can happen. It pushes us forward.”

I think that the conversation between these two women is a great reminder of strides we have made, the importance of banding together, the need to continue this dialogue and the lengths we still have to go.

Here’s a link to the story — http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/fashion/ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-gloria-steinem-on-the-unending-fight-for-womens-rights.html?_r=0

And a second article about behind-the-scenes —

Looking for a little inspiration

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Laura from Aurora, Nebraska

Sometimes the best place to go for a little inspiration is simply out of town. My friend, a brilliant illustrator, Annie Brule said, “Being out of your usual context is almost always good for you.” She was telling me a story over a glass of wine in West Seattle about a weekend trip that gave her clarity.

When I boarded a flight to New York a few days later, I had no goals of seeking anything out or looking for perspective or anything like that. I just wanted to go have fun and see a few friends. Instead, I got inspiration in spades.

There were late night conversations with Aimee about love, life, our past struggles and our future daydreams. There was the instant comfort of a conversation with Selina. There was chatting at the Museum of Modern Art with Raluca about her trip home to Romania and her progress on her novel.

My friend Laura stands out the most. It was her first trip to New York and she took it all in with an unusual finesse and zest, pointing out the smallest of details and asking questions galore as we walked around the city. We all met Laura on maybe our first day at the Art Farm in Nebraska. She popped into the house, explaining that she lived in the next town over and gave us her phone number in case we needed anything. She soon became a dear friend.

Laura is a real Renaissance woman. She works with cows all day in a research project for the university. She can tell you everything about antique tractors or the Nebraska prairie. She’s also an artist, crafter and musician, who writes her own songs and plays guitar.

Over the summer, she told me stories about her Native American roots, her great grandmother who wore long skirts, kept a gun at her hip and could roll a cigarette with one-hand. In New York, she sang a song in Aimee’s living room with such courage. When we complemented her voice and her poetry, she admitted to having sung opera in the past and playing saxophone.

Laura-from-Aurora is who convinced me to take the trip east — even though I was reluctant to make a break in my routine. While we were crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, I thanked her. I said that she is that rare type who follows through on daydream plans — and that’s the type of person who I like the most. She couldn’t imagine being any other way.

On my last night of the trip, I drank spiked apple cider from a nearby orchard in Connecticut with my friend Stan and my cousin Lauren in her new house. We sat on Lauren’s screened porch, watching the sun set and bearing witness to the changing temperatures of a cool fall night. I talked about the uncertainties of my life, my struggles finding enough work to keep myself afloat and my desires to see my art go somewhere one day — whatever that means.

Stan offered to help in whatever ways possible. Lauren encouraged me to open a gallery. We all told stories and laughed as it became dark, then moved inside. I am grateful for the people who have recently become part of my life, for knowing Aimee and Trae, Selina, Raluca and Annie, and Laura. I feel like it would be so easy to have never met them, to have never gone to Nebraska and just turned my car around. I am grateful as well for the people who I already know who continue to push me forward. I feel like it is easy to want more — and perhaps more difficult to recognize that what we want, we’ve had all along — courage, love, inspiration, wild hearts, sympathetic minds and phenomenal beings all around.