Sunday, November 11, 2012

A World of Value

Yesterday, I spent the entire morning and afternoon painting... home, that is. It's been long overdue, and I was just in the mood for the mini-vacation that redecorating can sometimes be. I was ecstatic by the way the dry-brush technique looked, and inspired to take a bold leap of color with some red paint I had left over from another project. My son had a friend over and they sat at the table for hours, engaged in building a Lego city. Periodically, he came to check my progress. A lover of beauty, his eyes widened when he saw me painting the door red. "Oh, Mama, our house is the most beautiful of all," he said. I smiled.

When a friend called later, and asked what I was doing, I answered, "Painting."
"Oh I'm glad to hear that," she said. "It's about time you started a new painting." For a moment, I didn't respond. Then I simply said, "I'm painting my bathrooms and hallway, not a canvas." "Oh," she said, and shifted the conversation to the reason for her call.

The previous weekend, in a second hand store shopping for new reading material to have on hand for the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, I discovered a little gem called The Wisdom of the Elders, a collection of quotes by esteemed African American women and men compiled by Robert Fleming. The book's cover, featuring a linocut by artist Elizabeth Catlett, caught my eye, and I opened up to a random page to find a quote by Jean Toomer called, 'A World of Value."

"I must see my understandings produce results in human experience. Productivity is my first value. I must make and mold and build life. As an artist, I must shape human relationships. To me, life itself is the greatest material. I would far rather form a man than form a book. My whole being is devoted to making my small area of expertise a work of art. I am building a world."

To that, Fleming had added, "Novelist Jean Toomer, noted for his classic work Cane, wrote about the need to elevate the purpose of our lives above the usual pursuit of the dollar. Blind materialism rarely offers us the kind of positive outlets that allow us to tap into the totality of who we are. How many of us work for forty years without stopping to cultivate human relationships outside of the family or workplace?

It's not enough to fill our homes with pretty or costly things. We must be conscious of how we live, the colors we use on the canvases of our lives. We must open ourselves up to new experiences, new adventures, and new friendships. We must free ourselves from the prison of ego and habit and reshape our ideas of who we are.

The artful life begins when we take hidden dreams within us and bring them to life. Life as art affirms the best that is in us.

My life is a work of art."

Of course, I bought the book.
For months now, I've made it a point to do a variety of things that, for odd reasons, I've always wanted to do but hadn't. Small things. Visiting The Rock House, a local landmark that inspires much legend and lore. Wrapping my hair up in a beautiful scarf, gypsy style. Painting all of my doors red. Making Baba Ganoush from scratch. Going to the beach on my birthday weekend, staying at an ocean front hotel and diving into the sea on the morning of my birth. Seeing The Angel Oak Tree. Taking my son to a Renaissance Festival. Attending a knitting retreat, and mastering the most complicated pattern I've encountered since I first picked up my needles. The list goes on and on, but in order to do all of these new and wonderful things, I've had to lay down ego and habit and reshape my own ideas of who I am.

For years I spent my evenings alone with brushes and paint. I’m not sure what I was ultimately going for, but I was disciplined as hell. If I wasn't painting, I was writing. When I wasn't doing either of those things, I was thinking of what I could be painting or writing. What I wasn't always doing, however, was living. I'm sad to say there was a time when most of my friendships were maintained via email or text. I was just too busy to give any real, actual time to anyone...or was I? Truth is, I was no busier then than I am now. My priorities were simply skewed. I had, along the way, forgotten that it is pretty dang hard to paint about life, or write about life, if you aren't actually living your life. Whether it is big things or small, if you don't step away from time to time and allow yourself new friendships, new adventures, and new experiences, your subject matter becomes redundant...just like life.

This morning, as I went downstairs for coffee, I had to smile at the gazillion jillion coffee cups and wine glasses and tiny little saucers that were strewn all about my den and kitchen. It was a nice time, last night, as coffee gave way to wine and later back to coffee and there was laughter and friendship and my son, maturing by leaps and bounds every day, saying goodnight to everyone and putting himself to bed on his own, and the ones who left early and the ones who stayed later and the one who stayed longest and the talk we had as we tidied up the remnants of foods from the kitchen table. This was no Saturday evening alone, laboring over a canvas, trying to express the same idea in a new way while trying to keep alive a skeleton of a social life through texts and social networking. I've had enough evenings like that to do me for a long, long time. And while I'm still passionate about creating, I'm more passionate now about living. Fully. In the moment. I still have goals, but they are not the same as they were before. And that's okay.

I want to tell my friend, who for some reason needs to compartmentalize me as a painter only and is oddly bothered I'm not showing or making art right now, that change is the only thing in life that is a constant, no matter else what we try to hold on to. I want to tell her that writing is the only creative constant that I've never ebbed and flowed with, and that every experience I live becomes words in my head that I store for future reference, that even if I'm not talking about it, I'm working on the new story everyone's been asking about, only I'm doing it slowly, because I've got a life to live and child to raise and people to love and things to grow and make and mornings to spend on my patio with coffee listening to the birds sing and evenings to watch the sky turn dim, and then release its burst of stars, while I breath in deeply the night air and watch the foxes slip out of their hidden dens. I want to tell her that there is no hurry. That there is time. And that time is now. And it will all be as it's meant to be, so long as I remain strong and focused on what I know I want for my life. I do not buckle under what I've seen take down so many others - fear and the need to control. Or maybe fear of the loss of control. Or maybe just fear.

Gone now are the tiniest remnants of doubt that still lived in me. Life is nothing without risks, big or small. Sometimes the smallest risk takes the most courage. I write a lot about '20 seconds of insane courage,' a line I loved from movie I saw months ago. But in truth, courage isn't something that can be suddenly mustered up in a matter of seconds. It's simply something that is in us...or not. It took courage for me to step away from the habits, routine and ego associated with the way I'd lived for so long, to throw away familiarity and embrace new, untried ideas about living fully, in the moment. I want to tell my friend that living fully is a totally relevant thing, relevant to the person who is doing the living. In the end, only we know if our lives are what we want them to be. From the outside looking in, others see what they are conditioned to see. They interpret our lives based on their own experiences. This is not the gauge we should use to assess how we're doing; that mistake can be fatal to our spirits. Only we know what truths lay behind the words we write, the statuses we post, the pictures that can make even the most dysfunctional situation seem idyllic. Only we know if enough courage lies within us to seek our treasure, whatever and where ever it may be.

I want to tell my friend that I'm painting my house, not a canvas, because this is where I live right now, and it should be as beautiful as it can possibly be. That my red door makes me deliriously happy every time I see it, and that the piece of plant I found on the balcony of the hotel at the beach is growing just like I knew it would.
I want to tell her all of this and more, but I don't, because I know she won't understand. I'm not painting, haven’t since late summer, and she's determined to find out why. But I can’t tell her. I can only write this, hope she sees it, and understands.


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