Capacity for Delight

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Untitled painting in progress

“The quality of life is in proportion to the capacity for delight,” Julia Cameron writes in her guide to creativity, “The Artist’s Way.” She points out that attention to detail and awareness are powerful forces.

For me too, taking time to notice the little things has been a valuable lesson. Sometimes I feel so rushed with work, deadlines and to-do lists that I struggle to even completely read an article in the newspaper or make time to do nothing at all but breathe in an afternoon moment.

The “New York Times Magazine” ran a fascinating article called “Head in the Clouds” by Jon Mooallem in May. The subheading read, “An improbably tale of 19th century adventurers, crowdsourced meteorological discoveries and the poetic wonders in the sky.”

Near the end, the author attends a conference of the Cloud Society. He writes “Somewhere in this story about clouds and cloud lovers, I’d found a compelling argument for staying open to varieties of beauty that we can’t quite categorize and, by extension, for respecting the human capacity to feel, as much as scrutinize the sources of those feelings.”

It’s essential to look, to listen, to learn. It’s important to allow ourselves to linger in emotion, to explore desire, to daydream.

I feel like too often we want to dwell in what we already know. It’s comfortable there. But the problem is, when we stick too closely to already categorized information, we cease to notice mystery, wonder and greater beauty. Instead perhaps we should strive to be explorers, pioneers, adventurers, seeking something more.

Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote in “My Struggle Book 1” about art — and its move into abstraction.

Now, art has gone even further, he explained:

“The props of art no longer have any significance, all the emphasis is placed on what the art expresses, in other words, not what it is but what it thinks, what ideas it carries, such that the last remnants of objectivity, the final remnants of something outside the human world have been abandoned.”

He seems to believe this applies to even more of our current culture. “Art does not know a beyond, science does not know a beyond, religion does not know a beyond, not anymore.”

He continues into a discussion of reality and death.

But my mind wanders. Isn’t there something spectacular to admitting there is something more than our own self, something bigger than our little worlds, larger than the constraints of our own egos? I think pondering wonder itself — no matter how vast or small — is also part of the capacity for joy.

 

 

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In Memory

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Her name was Sarah Jo Schoger, but everyone called her Jody. I remember the first time I met her at my mother’s office. This tiny woman was talking about deer hunting with such enthusiasm that it took me back. She had a laugh that moved the room.

I’m not sure how I became friends with her, but it happened quickly. Jody had a unique way of making you feel magical, full of potential. She used to grab a yellow legal pad and take notes during our conversations — then suggest follow-up readings or groups to look into, all tangential topics based on something I said. Even though I was about 28 years her junior, she treated me as a colleague, took my writing and process seriously and was always willing to discuss my current projects and daydreams.

When I was in high school, Jody was diagnosed with breast cancer — and I was a frequent visitor to her home my junior and senior year while she went through chemo. She talked to me about all of her treatment options. She took off her wig around me. She was weak and tired and could barely eat, but she would still share a recipe, have a cup of coffee and chat. She seemed unstoppable and stronger to me than anyone, even in her most difficult moments.

We lost a mutual friend to colon cancer shortly after I left to college. I remember crying about it while I was on a date at the movies — then meeting with Jody to talk about it.

Jody went into remission. She became symbolic of beating the odds to me. When other women I knew were diagnosed with breast cancer, I used her story to boost hope.

And that’s why it felt crushing to find out, after 15 years of being cancer-free, that Jody discovered that it came back.

Today at her funeral, her sister Megan McCready said she doesn’t like when people say “battle with cancer.”

“As if it were a fair fight,” Megan said.

Cancer is not fair — nor does it follow any rules. No rhyme or reason to whom it infects. Still, Megan said, if you want to think of cancer as something to battle, Jody would be a warrior.

And she was. She was also an inspiration to all of the women whom she helped with the online community that she co-founded http://www.bcsm.org.

She was a light for the teenage girl I once was too. She made me believe in myself.

And I hope that other women will follow in her footsteps — generously giving, carefully listening and eagerly and openly loving.

Memorials for Jody may be sent to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center — https://mdanderson.org. Scroll to “Give Now” and designate “In Memory of” Sarah Schoger. Checks may also be mailed to M.D. Anderson/P.O. Box 4486/ Houston, TX 77210.

To read more about Jody and her amazing advocacy, check out:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/voices/2016/05/19/voices-powerful-advocate-breast-cancer-survivors-dies/84539844/

 

 

 

Chosen surrenders

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Yesterday evening, I decided to go sit by the ocean and write a letter to Aimee. I have been struggling to write lately — whether for work or pleasure or simple log-keeping. A couple of times, I posted up at a bar with a glass of bourbon, pledging to put pen to paper and nothing happened.

By the water, with the sun setting, I found myself writing, “I want to be open to love, open to emotion. I want to regain the energy to grow and change and not feel so worn out all the time.”

And as the words came out, I felt a queasy recognition. How long have I been saying the same thing? I think back on when I first started writing this blog, during the Art Farm days, and reread “So the reason I want to start this blog is to reconnect with my old feelings about art, to highlight the artists that I believe in and to document my life among the artists. I am the one having the identity crisis, I suppose, and I want to fix it somehow.”

Sometimes my roommate Rob and I talk about progress. We discuss what it’s like to know better — and yet still slip into the same patterns.

There was something in the air last summer that made me feel like I could make a fresh start. And here I am basically longing for the space (and the people) who could make me feel the same way.

Rebecca Solnit writes in “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” that “the things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”

How do we grow into something that we have yet to discover? How do we become a new person, one we haven’t met yet — and what does that look and feel like?

“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark,” Solnit writes. “That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from and where you will go.”

She encourages tiptoeing across the borders of uncertainty.

“To be lost is to be fully present and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery,” she writes.

The cadence of the sentence, for some reason, reminds me of lyrics to a Stevie Wonder song, “A seed’s a star/ A seed’s a star’s a seed/ A star’s a seed/ A star’s a seed’s a star.”

And as my friend, writer Carmella Guiol Naranjo reminded me on the phone yesterday, it’s a new moon and it’s spring time — it’s a good time to plant seeds, a good time for new beginnings and reaching out to stars.

 

preplungemeandaimeeAimee and I contemplate the stars, then we consider taking a plunge in the lake . . .

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.