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.”

 

 

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.