Sunday, March 27, 2011

Earth Hour Musings...

Sometimes, stillness must be sought out like a needle in a haystack. It’s elusive, hard to catch, as intangibly difficult a concept as visualizing someone else’s dream. Other times, it settles upon us easily, a mantle of peace suddenly wrapped around our shoulders.


Tonight was the annual Earth Hour, when the world collaborates on a global mission of using less energy. Those who participate turn off all power in their homes for one hour. No lights, no television, no anything that needs a cord and an outlet to work. This is the third year I’ve participated in this event, and the stillness it creates always seems to take me to a different place. I suppose that’s because each year, I’m in a different place. Not physically, but mentally and spiritually. And Earth Hour encourages me to take one hour out of an entire year and just sit. Reflect. Be. Don’t try to do anything by candlelight, but to just sit for a while with my thoughts. Observe the candlelight. Observe the soft glowing aura that surrounds it, how it contrasts with the neighboring darkness. Walk slowly through the house, noticing how different my surroundings appear in the absence of artificial light. Imagine my house is a cave, my hallway a long dark tunnel. My senses respond to this new world: fingers touch the wall, feeling their way along. I can anticipate what will come next: the coolness of the stair rail, the ridges of a doorway, the feel of tile becoming carpet under my bare feet as I pass into a new room. In the dim light, my art appears mysterious, seen only in small lit sections, surrounded by a warm red glow, like the ancient graffitti of long ago.


I’ve always been keenly interested in the art found deep within the earth's hollows, evidence of the need to be creative scrawled on the walls of caves thousands of years ago. The paintings of Lascaux in particular make my soul feel ignited. Some of these images are estimated to be between 10,000-20,000 years old, and scientists all over the world spend quite a lot of time debating the intention behind the works. Were they spiritual, part of ancient prayer rituals? Or were they talismans intended to bring luck to hunting parties? But no one knows. We see these paintings through the filter of time and the power of artificial light…each large animal, each glyph, each handprint on the wall, all at once. But this is not how the ancients would have seen these images at all. They’d have seen them the way I see my paintings on the wall during Earth Hour: by the light of a small flame, whether it was a torch or simple grease burning lamp. They’d have taken the images in one by one, holding their light to the walls, watching each painting appear in the glow of their lamp’s soft, flickering aura. They would have created the works in near darkness as well, not in the glow of artificial lights that I feel I must bask in every time I pick up a brush.


There is a sense of stillness that the absence of bright lights can bring about. But what about the absense of sound? Or should I say the absence of the sounds we are so conditioned to as modern humans. It is a universal truth that a state of chaos tends to generate more chaos, and yet we have grown so habituated to the continuous presence of artificial sound in our lives that we keep it going. We revel in the ‘mind chaos’ that these sounds bring about. We leave the television on for ‘background noise’, or we need the radio’s ramblings to fall asleep. We raise our voices over the sound of our appliances droning and run to the chirp of our cell phones like lackys to a bell. We don’t even realize what it does to our physches when chaos takes the place of stillness, when sounds, any sounds at all, are preferable to silence.


During Earth Hour, I hear the soft rhythmic breathing of my son while he sleeps. I hear the sound of rain striking the glass top of my patio table. I hear an owl call out, and I hear his mate respond. I hear my cat, obviously angry, emitting a low growl at some trespasser. An occasional car passes in the night, tires slick on the wet roads. A nieghbor laughs as they unlock the door of thier home. Otherwise, the world is still, my den an ancient cave.


I’ve explored caves, following their trails deep under the earth. They are quiet places where the only sound tends to be that of the explorers' footsteps and voices. I can imagine the Lascaux artists of long ago creating in the halls of those great caves, firelight flickering nearby, the sound of low voices occasionally piercing the stillness. If chaos generates more chaos, then stillness certainly generates more stillness…stillness of the mind, which allows us to connect with the deeper levels of our creativity. What thoughts went through the ancient artists’ minds as they scratched pigment onto stone, spread color with their hands, watched as animals came to life in startling detail by the power of their own hand? Were they considered sorcerers? Alchemists? Were they thought to possess special abilities?


I found a place of complete stillness once, stumbling across it in the Alaskan backwoods almost two decades ago while enjoying a youthful adventure. It was a clearing outside of a small town, tucked away between the mountains, somewhere along the road to other places we were heading towards. It was a pit-stop, a diversion, not an intended stop along the journey...but there, in that clearing, I experienced not silence, for the natural world was alive with life that day, but stillness. True and total stillness. No cars passed by, we were too far from the road for that. No cell phone could even get a signal, much less ring. The only sounds to be heard were those of the earth itself. I stood for a long time in that moment, knowing I was being given a rare gift. I was being allowed to hear what my ancestors had spent thier lives hearing. I don’t mean the cry of the hawks or the soft rippling of wind through the trees, but what those sounds carry with them. How they speak to our souls when we allow stillness in.


A world away from Lascaux, ceramic shards litter the floors of the ancient cave-like dwellings the mysterious Anasazi once inhabited. The shards form parts of pottery, functional items used for carrying water and storing grains. But closer inspection reveals that the shards are decorated. Whirling lines, dramatic stylized animals, repetitive patterns, all carved or painted onto the clay surfaces. Unnecessary for function, yes, but necessary to the ancient artists who rendered them in the same stillness that surrounded me in Alaska’s wilderness. In a workshop on creativity, the teacher encourages us to find time each day to sit in stillness. I think of how rarely I actually do this. I wondered if I even can.


But now, as Earth Hour ticks slowly by, I find myself sitting alone in my den, my candle flickering down to nothing as I thumb through a book on the cave paintings of Lascaux. I have a book on the intricate designs of Anasazi pottery, but I don’t need to look at it. I can see the images clearly in my mind as if creating them are my own memories. And it is in this Earth Hour stillness that I realize I will never need a team of other people to explain to me why ancient folk created art, made musical instruments, or had intricate storytelling traditions. I do not need someone else to tell me that the need for creative expression is as primitive as life’s origins, as essential to our souls as food is to our bodies. It is the reason someone painted on a clay pot, or hollowed a flute from a limb, carved a stone into a bear, or told stories around a fire at night a thousand lifetimes before mine.


In the stillness of their ancient world, they found their creative voices, voices that still speak to us today.


And if we make time to sit in stillness, we will find ours as well.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Activating the Light

Yesterday I shipped two works of art out to their new prospective owners. One a commissioned work; the other, a piece from my own heart and mind…and just a little harder to let go of.

Here’s a secret, about artists…we don’t always create our works with the idea in mind that they are going to sell, oh no. Most often we create just because it’s in our soul to do so. And then, when someone asks the price, we stand a little speechless, suddenly feeling possessive, not quite sure if we are ready to let go of our creation just yet.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve parted with a piece of art, only to wish later I’d kept it with me a little longer. Because the truth is, I’ve never known an artist who could paint the same picture twice. Creation is an act that deals solely with the moment. What is in the mind, soul and heart at the time that the work is being created is poured into the piece, whether it is a portrait, a sculpture, a poem, a musical composition, or a coffee table made by hand. All the thoughts, ideas, and love behind the work become a part of it. And yes, there is love behind things that one creates: the love of the idea, the love of the materials, and the love of the process itself. The creative process. But what defines these moments, these instances where creativity takes root, shape and form?

In Lowe’s Home Improvement store last week, waiting on the attendant to mix the paint I needed to complete my kitchen do-over, I took out a slip of paper with the numbers and dimensions for all the new light switch-plates I needed to buy. Over a dozen, total. There’s nothing wrong with the current ones, mind you. They are simple beige plastic plates that function perfectly, but just seem dull now that new coats of paint grace nearly every wall of my home. I thought replacing them would add an elegant little touch to each room’s new d├ęcor, but I was startled to find out that it would cost at least eight dollars per switch for the nicer plates. And I needed a dozen.

Ouch.

There are levels in life to nearly all experiences one can have. For example, being a single parent. There are many single parents out there, and all situations aren’t the same. There are those who share the physical, emotional, and financial duties of child raising so equally with their former partners that they are actually still raising the children together, regardless of their relationship status…this is, of course, ideal for the children’s sake, but doesn’t constitute single parenting. It’s more co-parenting, really. Then there are parents who do the primary physical and emotional tending to the children, relying on the other parent for some shared financial support and also the physical care of the child a few weekends a month. They may also have a support person in the home, a new spouse or partner who shares in these responsibilities as well.
And then there are those like me, true single parents who shoulder the entire responsibilities of child rearing on our own, without any concern from the child’s other parent or any other support person to fill in the gaps. And for those of us in this situation, no decision that involves spontaneous spending of money is ever entered into lightly. We’ve learned that wolves lurk at the door when we least expect it, and when it’s all on you financially, you’re a little less likely to splurge, no matter how much money you make, or how much you might desire a little elegance. If you’ve faced down wolves at the door before, you know there’s always the chance that they’ll come back.

But mercifully, being creative is a way of life, not simply an act to be done spontaneously when time allows. It’s about how one’s mind works; how it processes a problem and arrives at a solution. It’s not just about making art or clothes or poetry, it’s not just some intangible realm known only to dreamy souls. Being a creative person is about choosing to live one’s life in a unique, extraordinary way that doesn’t yield easily to being told ‘it can’t be done.’ It’s not about just settling for what you already have or what would be the easiest solution to a problem, but in letting what lies within you dictate what will and won’t be possible in your life. I stood in Lowes that morning knowing full well that it would be risky and impractical to spend so much money on fancy, but unnecessary, switch-plates, but I also knew it would be useless to buy cheaper ones, for they weren’t much of a step up from what I already had. And I didn’t want to leave them as they were. It made all the renovations I’d already undertaken on my home seem somehow incomplete. And so I left with just my paint, and the question in my mind of what to do.
It wasn’t a real crisis, of course…just a simple glitch in my redecorating plan, but it was on my mind all the same. Then, halfway home my son asked, “Mama, while you are painting, can I make a collage?”

And there it was…the solution appeared instantly, tripping over my son’s words as his spoke, the idea falling down upon me so quickly I could barely wait to get home and begin. A mottled coat of oil paint on each plate and a few carefully chosen words and images torn from magazines, and voila! The problem of the dull switch plates was solved in a splendidly creative way, no money was spent, and I accomplished a more unique result than if I’d simply bought a dozen identical plates. The process itself was simple and fun, and the ‘renovated’ switch plates are now bright, happy little spots along the walls…appropriate really, for an object whose sole function in the world is to activate light within a space. But if something is to have just one function, isn’t activating light a pretty good one?

Creativity rarely arises from the desire to make money or receive acclaim from others. It often involves those factors, yes, but if it becomes primarily about external motivators like fame and fortune, it will lose its authenticity, for money and praise rarely walk hand in hand with love. And creativity must involve love, because both stem from the same source within us. They both arise from the internal desire we have to activate light within a space. To make visible, or possible, what without us might never have been.

No matter how much I may miss a painting I’ve let go of, I’d never try to paint it again. Creating the same painting twice would be like trying to recreate the same experience over and over. Nothing is the same the second time around, we all know that. However, there are many, many people who live their lives with this goal in mind. They long for something special in their lives, but when they are given a glorious new – but startlingly different – life experience, they cast it aside like rubbish because it’s unfamiliar. Blinders fully on, they can only see what they have created in the past, and they seek to recreate something similar for the future. Because what is similar is predictable, and the predictable is somewhat controllable, and if you’ve ever had your life turned upside down, there’s nothing you’ll long for more than some sense of control. But these are fool’s errands in the end, for keeping life within the parameters of the familiar and predictable doesn’t guarantee any real control over what might come next. It only guarantees doing the same thing the same way over and over, which after a few years, becomes about as exciting as my plain beige light switches.

The artist knows this, and it is the sole reason one rarely sees a painter trying to create the same image over and over. But creativity is not the sole possession of the artist, no. It It exists in all of us. It is the place in the mind where problems meet solutions, where torn images from magazines and a little paint and glue become dazzling new switch-plates, where great lengths are taken to ensure, mercifully, that instead of trying to recreate what was, we can be courageous enough to let the familiar go sometimes and step up to bold new roles, unafraid.

In my house now, the switch-plates are like snowflakes. No two are the same. They shout their presence out from the walls, and because of this, activating the light is a pretty easy task.

And thank goodness for that.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Faith, Freedom Riders, and the Perseverance of Hawks

Growing up I spent a lot of time outside alone. It was a place of peace for me, a refuge from strings of difficult schooldays. I was an ADD child before the term was coined, and the classrooms of the late seventies and early eighties were difficult places for me. I can remember being told over and over and over by exasperated teachers, “Why can’t you just sit here quietly like everyone else?’ or ‘Are you paying attention?’ If there was a window in the classroom, I can assure you, I was not. I was staring out the window at the world beyond.

I was so out of place in the classroom, and with my peers. They didn’t understand me any better than my teachers did. But I was in my element in nature. There I felt at home in a way I rarely did anywhere else. And so I learned to be patient. I learned to grip the sides of my desks sometimes when the urge to move was too strong. I learned that if I looked out the window too much, the teacher would turn my desk away from it, so I trained myself to use my peripheral vision to sneak glances at the sky while appearing to be completely focused on the board. I learned that to make it in the classroom, I had to become, in a way, a totally different person, but I knew that if I could maintain that identity for the 7 hours I was required to be at school, the days would roll along smoothly and there would be no reprimands, no trips to the principal’s office, no notes home to my parents. It just took being patient, and knowing, no matter how slowly the clock ticked the school day away, that eventually I’d be outside in the woods I loved.

In nature, I could sit still for hours on end with no problem. As a matter of fact, I used to try to 'blend' with it...by being very still and calm and quiet. I wanted to belong to the outdoors the same way the lizards and bees belonged to it. I learned to watch nature, and to watch for nature. I learned that if you are still enough you can see birds building their nests, a snake sliding along a tree branch, a chameleon change it's color, a butterfly drink from the puddle of dew in a leaf. The first time I was able to sit still long enough to have a bird actually land on me, I learned that there is something to be said for the art of persevering.

Yesterday I watched a hawk sitting on a very low branch by the creek. He was watching the same spot, his eyes never moving. He waited...and waited...and waited. Occasionally he'd ruffle his feathers or look away...but then he returned his gaze to that spot. He watched and waited for a very, very long time. The sun slowly changes positions in the sky, and neither of us moved. The hawk watched the creek, and I watched the hawk. Eventually, there was a rustle in the leaves, and the large bird raised his wings and carried himself up to a higher branch. But even from a different perch, his sharp eyes still watched the creek. Hunger is a powerful motivator.
Pain in the belly rarely disappears just because you want it to.

I recently discovered the story of The Freedom Riders. That I could have come through years of public school and six years of college and never known these quiet heroes existed in our nation’s history amazes me. The Freedom Riders were a group of average citizens, both black and white, who banded together in 1961 to protest segregation on the public transit systems. It’s a complex and amazing story of courage and perseverance. At every stop, The Freedom Writers were met by angry mobs. Buses were set on fire. Riders were beaten, often brutally. But they continued the ride. They weren’t trying to change the opinions of the mobs who met their buses with weapons and torches. They knew there was no hope of that. But they knew that what they were doing would, somehow, make a difference. They also knew that at every stop, one of them would have to be the first to exit the bus. Someone would have to be the first face the mob saw, the first body that would be hit, knocked down, stomped. And yet, there were those who volunteered to get off the bus first, even though they knew what they would face upon exiting.
There is so much more to this story…bus bombings, quite acts of heroism, examples of both the height of human compassion and the sad depths of ignorance that intolerance can inspire. But I won’t go any farther into it here. I’ll only say that I’m glad the story of The Freedom Riders came to my attention. I’m glad they believed that their cause was worthy, and that half a century later, their stories are still being told. I’m glad that their hunger for justice and fairness motivated them to continue the ride. And I’m glad I live now in the world that the perseverance of people like them helped to create. There is always room for improvement, yes…but we’re certainly in a better place now than we were then.

So what is it inside of us that keeps us going, that tells us what we are doing is worth continuing towards? With no definitive proof that our efforts will pay off, what gives us the strength, the determination, to keep moving along a certain path? What gives an 8-year-old child the ability to grip tightly the edge a desk just to get through a school day without a reprimand? What gives a hawk the ability to sit patiently for hours and watch a creek that may yield nothing for the hungry belly in the end? What fire inside gave The Freedom Riders the courage to continue the ride when they knew what they were facing at every stop?

I can’t tell you that. I can only tell you this: Giving up is the easy way out. It’s lying down and letting the world roll over you with its own bus. It’s looking into the face of hardship, challenge, and adversity and saying “Okay, you win.” It’s telling yourself you don’t want something anymore instead of fighting for it. It’s taking the story of your life, for which you are the primary author, and allowing fear to ghost write it for you. It’s being a spectator, and not a participant. It’s not being realistic, no; it’s being too weak to stand up for what you really want…what you really believe is possible. The Freedom Writers had no evidence that their bold stand would still be inspiring people fifty years later. The hawk had no idea I was watching him yesterday, learning lessons from his perseverance. As people, we have no idea of our own capacities to love, to live, and to believe, especially in ourselves.


I wonder sometimes, when my young son is frustrated trying to learn a new skill, or when I myself am trying to hold onto to a dream that seems to be defeated at every turn, if the ability to persevere is just genetic, something we are born with or without, or if it can be learned, taught, and inspired through the stories of others. I think it’s a little of both, but I hope it’s more of the latter, because while we can’t help how we are born, we all have total freedom to choose what we believe ourselves to be capable of. We all choose whether to author our own stories, or let fear, doubt, and intimidation ghost write our lives for us.

A hawk rests patiently, knowing perseverance is key to survival. Somewhere in history, a person takes a dangerous bus ride, knowing intolerance cannot be tolerated. Someone else loves against all hope, swims against the tide, and closes their eyes for the night with the knowledge that what they believe in is worth fighting for. Somewhere else, a person steps out of their own story, letting blank pages fill the void where words should go. These blank pages become the chapter of thier life called ‘When I gave Up’. In later years, it is destined to be the one read the most by the author, who will sit, pen in hand, desperately trying to fill the pages with what they wish they'd done.



To learn more about The Freedom Riders, visit http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5149667

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Finding the Time...

I wake to the sound of pouring rain, falling rhythmically onto the various items on my patio, creating a cacophony of sound, a random orchestra of high and low tones. It is early Sunday morning, before dawn, the time I best like to wake.

I can barely remember the time when I didn’t rise before dawn. It began in art school, when I was working three jobs, being a full-time student, and realizing that if I wanted to be a painter, I was going to have to find some time to paint. I did not have the type of life that afforded long stretches of time in the studio. I still don’t. Then, just like now, my days were often planned down to the minute. Working all day at the frame shop, then evening classes and weekends spent teaching or hostessing at a local restaurant afforded little extra time back then. But being in the studio was important to me, so I began rising at 5am and painting, writing, or just doing something creative until 7:30am, when it was time to start getting ready for work.

Most of my friends thought I was insane to give up sleep, and yes, it took some time for my body to adjust to the early hour. I figured out pretty quickly that if I was going to be waking up at 5am, then I’d better get to bed before midnight. And I gave myself a break on the few mornings that I just couldn’t do it, when I was too exhausted from all I had to do to survive to pull myself out of bed before the sun rose and be creative. But in time, with nothing but my own determination not to be undone, waking up early and going into the studio became a habit…such a habit, in fact, that more than a decade later, I’m still rising before the dawn, even on weekends.

According to Julia Cameron, author of the acclaimed Artist’s Way book series, it takes approximately 12 weeks for a new routine to become a habit. That’s three months, which seems like an interminably long time at first, but as we all know, tends to pass in the blink of an eye. That’s one thing about time, it doesn’t hang around. We lay claim to it while it is slipping through our fingers like sands in an hourglass. It was Benjamin Franklin that stated “Do not squander time, for it is the stuff life is made of.” For years, I had that quote taped onto my bathroom mirror. Every morning I’d read it and remember that no matter how I chose to spend my day, free time was a precious commodity that I did not have in abundance. I still don’t have free time in abundance, but I have learned how to give creativity a high priority in my life by managing what time I do have.

I don’t need to see Franklin’s quote every morning now to remind me not to waste time…my life is certainly fuller these days than it was a decade ago. With a teaching career and a few side pursuits, along with raising a child on my own, it takes more strategy than ever to find time to be creative. But it is there. A comment I often hear from others is, “I don’t know how you have time to do all the things that you do.” I don’t understand this, because few people, least of all me, ‘have’ time to do things. That’s not at all how it works. When something is important to you, you must make time for it. It’s really that simple. Because the time is hiding behind hours spent in front of television or idled away looking for bargains in a shopping center. It hides behind social engagements we feel we must take on, and voluntary commitments that we impose on ourselves and often, our children. (How many family schedules revolve around the kids’ extracurricular activities?) Creative time hides because, sadly, we are often taught that the arts are a frivolous luxury that only people with an abundance of time can afford to pursue.

To put a value on creative time is to take a stand that many of us aren’t ready to take.
It’s much easier to tell ourselves we don’t have time for things than it is to tell others that we value creativity in our lives, and that making time for it is important. But the truth is, there are many ways to incorporate creativity into daily routines. The first, and simplest, is by waking up a little earlier each morning and spending that time in some creative pursuit, just as I did when I was pinched for time in college. Journaling is a favorite early morning practice, because so much comes from this simple exercise. Not only clarity and a release of negativity, for we often ‘vent’ when we write, but also for the occasional poem or essay that will suddenly burst forth from a journal’s pages.

Finding a creative activity that can be done ‘on the go’ is also very rewarding. I have an ‘on-the-go bag’ that accompanies me almost everywhere. It’s filled with a variety of projects that I can pull out and work on when I find I’ve got a few minutes to spare. And as our lives become busier, we often have to adjust our creative goals. I used to paint on huge canvases that were typically 3’ x 4’. Now, as my life has gotten busier, I usually work on canvases no larger than 16” x 20”. It simply makes more sense to work smaller, and it allows me to complete more projects.

If you have children, don’t use them as an excuse for not being creative. Be creative with them! Children love the chance to explore artistic mediums. When my son’s friends are over, and I pull out the clay or the collage box, there’s no Wii or Playstation in the world that can compete. Most children delight in being creative with their parents, even if it’s as simple a project as making a cake from a box mix and decorating it. And there’s not enough that can be said regarding the memories you’ll give them during this time.

If you are persistent enough with finding a way to fit creativity into your life, it will eventually become a habit. You’ll find yourself cutting off the television, which might mean missing GLEE, but finally finishing the painting you started back in college. You might find that it isn’t so big a deal you don’t spend this Saturday afternoon in Greenville shopping, because instead you’ll spend that time creating a collage with your children. You might miss a night out at the pub with your friends, but complete the poem you’ve struggled with for a month. At the end of a year, because of your ‘on-the-go’ bag, you might knit a sweater during the time you spent waiting to pick the kids up from school or for soccer practice to be over. Or maybe, by waking up a little earlier each day, you’ll find you’ve written an entire book or series of poems in those wee morning hours you spent scribbling away in your journal.

Time is there…hiding, lurking around behind the reasons we give ourselves for not having it. If you’ve got the desire for more creativity in your life, then take a close look at how you spend the time that you do have. We all squander a little…take the initiative and salvage what you can today. Create some new routines to allow more creativity into your life. In twelve weeks, your routines will have become habits…and you’ll find yourself somewhere along the way.