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.

 

Being comfortable with not knowing

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My painting “When You Are Spinning”

I started this painting, “When You Are Spinning,” when I first settled into my¬†apartment in Seattle. It is inspired by my friend Steven Foster, a fantastic writer and creative force, who has been facing a number of challenges lately and who always heads forward into that abyss with great energy — whether its manic enthusiasm for the future or absolute dread with the present situation. The painting is of his office, a space that he remodels constantly — and always feels in motion and full of the energy of whatever Steven’s current project happens to be.

While I was painting I was listening to an episode of This American Life that just hit me. In it, the narrator describes the thrill of being on a carnival ride, in the midst of some personal tragedy. “It reminds you that when you are close to death and intimate with it, when you are spinning fast and high in the dark night with nothing around you, it is difficult to know what is happening,” he says. “It is difficult to be afraid, far more difficult than it is on the ground.”

When you are in the swing of this wild and crazy, wondrous life, it is hard to be afraid. But when things come to a standstill, anxiety is an easy companion to acquire. The problem is that life is full of hiccups and set-backs. I think for artists, this may be even more true, because we have consigned ourselves to a journey of self-discovery and constant reinvention.

In “No More Secondhand Art,” Peter London writes that “not knowing” is an important part of the creative process. Artists face not knowing when we stare at a blank canvas — but everyone deals with this — in our day-to-day lives with partnerships, friendships and basic experiences.

“Our usual response is to shrink back from the encounter,” London writes. “As a consequence, we are likely to fall back upon tired ways, disengage from the actual circumstances we find ourselves in and rerun past scenarios. The failure to make contact with the reality we’re in causes us in turn to feel out of our element and disempowered. In this dispirited state, we certainly do not feel in a mood for creative play or adventures of the imagination.”

I’m not sure how to become more engaged in actual circumstances and face the fear of the unknown — but it definitely seems worth spending time figuring out.

Peter London reminds us that “When all is empty, all is ready” and that “it is the zero point from which new things spring.”

He writes that “fear is the symptom indicating that great things are being confronted, the boundaries of what we take to be safe, real and good.”

And in regards to dealing with the past, I love this quote from him, “We must learn to discriminate between when the wind is blowing and when our memory is howling. We must take courage to breach the walls we have built to keep out the real dangers and test whether they are still present or have gone their ways. And when it ceases to howl outside, we must have the wherewithal to let it also go from our minds and turn to the new day.”