Abundance Is… (You Know How Much You Love It)

…Picking the fattest green crystal off your altar and carrying it around in your pocket after your inner cynic tells you to put it back because isn’t that a bit much?

…Wearing your favorite creamy eye shadow even though the bottle is getting low and your inner scrimper tells you to save it because it’s not like you’re seeing anyone today anyway.

…Going for a walk when the sun comes out in the afternoon even though you still have work to do and your inner perfectionist tells you to stay in your chair until you’ve finished because if you don’t do it all you might lose it all.

…Making yourself another cup of tea with cream and sugar immediately after finishing your first even though your inner ascetic is confused because you just had tea.

…Wearing the jeans that make your ass look thick even though your inner introvert says go with the same baggy courderoys you wore every day last year because who’s looking at you anyway?

…Taking a shower with someone else and letting them have a turn in the hot water even though your inner hedonist is telling you to stay until the water runs cold because what if there’s not enough for both of you?

…Opening your wallet in front of someone asking for your help on the street even though your inner skeptic is telling you to keep walking because what if it’s a scam?

…Scrolling past job postings on LinkedIn and house listings on Zillow even though your inner opportunist is scared because what if you miss the next great thing?

…Making your toast with egg and avocado and queso fresco and pepitas even though your inner regulator is judging because isn’t that a bit rich, for lunch?

…Walking away from a fight even though inner jerkstore is dying because you’re right and you need to show them all.

…Taking a day off even though your inner capitalist is freaking out because you are only as valuable as what you produce.

…Saying what you really think even though your inner people pleaser is scared because what if they don’t like me?

…Singing loudly in public even though your inner conformist is embarrassed because why are you so weird?

…Following your creative impulses when they lead in unexpected directions (to the canvas, the sketchpad) even though your inner critic is afraid your inspiration will dry up and you’ll never write anything meaningful again.

…Writing a bullshit, new-agey listicle and publishing it on your blog because actually it’s not bullshit at all.

Show Don’t Tell

Everyone needs a low stakes hobby. Lately, mine is painting. I’ve always only ever dabbled in the arts. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite ways to pass the time was playing “artist” with my sister. We’d pool our supplies and churn out piece after piece until we had a gallery-worthy collection. We usually trashed them before the day was out because the game was more about the process than the finished product. Mostly, I used markers and oil pastels to make abstract works like I imagined on the walls in art museums. I didn’t paint because I didn’t own paints. I didn’t set foot in an art museum until I took myself in college. My family wasn’t anti-art. My parents gave me supplies and enrolled me in classes. They are both creative, expressive people. My dad was a teacher by day but a musician at heart. He played the guitar like a man obsessed, in seemingly every spare moment. My mom loved to dance. However, other than an intricate sketch of the La’ie Hawai’i Temple by one of their old friends that hung in a place of honor in every home we lived, they weren’t much for the visual arts. Most of the pieces we had came from Deseret Book or the portrait studio at Sears. So, I muddled along, doodling in my notebooks, bringing home lumpy mugs, and taking pictures of clouds with a cheap point and shoot. I taught myself to paint with acrylics after my parents to busted me with weed and grounded me for the summer. I started decoupaging furniture around the same time. When I moved out, I obsessively colored and collaged while stoned. I didn’t keep a thing.

I quit making art when I quit getting high. Painting, poetry, writing songs, almost all of it fell by the wayside. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I just wasn’t inclined toward it. Or maybe I forgot how to access the more abstract parts of myself. Cleaning up kicked off years of sprinting toward the life I thought I wanted. Graduating from college with a double degree. Law school at a top ranked university. Prestigious job. Married by twenty-five. An updated apartment in the city that turned into a house in the suburbs. A baby by twenty-seven and plans for more. I didn’t have time for art. I was too busy making my life. I never stopped writing of course, but I hardly thought of myself as a writer. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that becoming a lawyer, a wife, and a mom meant sacrificing any other identities I might once have had.

Time slowed back down when my daughter and I crawled out of the baby stage. Do you know how long a weekend is with a toddler? Together, we discovered that art projects were the most effective way to while away a Saturday afternoon. I started taking her to the Art Institute in the morning and when we got home I’d pull out a box of acrylics and let her go to town on canvases if we had them, plain printer paper if we didn’t. It would have been cheaper to use washable paints for kids but I didn’t know those existed. We ruined a lot of clothes. The navy sweatshirt I’m wearing as I write this is flecked in yellow all over the front and there’s a splotch of red on the sleeves that looks like ketchup, or blood. Our dining table is permanently discolored with streaks of shimmer copper and purple glitter. I should care but it’s gorgeous. Besides paints, we used crayons and markers and gel pens and colored pencils and stencils and stamps and construction paper and cardboard and magazines and scissors and tape and pipe cleaners and modeling clay and Shrinky-Dinks and watercolors. It was play in its purest form, for both of us. When my daughter was done with a project, I’d dutifully put away the supplies and not think about art again until the next time we went to the museum or happened upon a long stretch of time. I proudly displayed my daughter’s work on shelves and walls. I put mine in drawers. Most everything we made disappeared eventually. Chalk on the sidewalk, play-dough creations, dried flower bouquets, scribbled pictures on the back of restaurant menus–most of it wasn’t made to last and the things that might have (paintings, drawings, constructing paper crafts) there was too much of. I couldn’t possibly keep it all.

My relationship to art changed again in the pandemic. First, Robert gave me a set of watercolors. I’d seen them at a bespoke art supply store in Andersonville and practically drooled over the little lumps of pigment wrapped up in muslin cloth. They were too beautiful for words. Also, too expensive, and wholly impractical. I eagerly accepted the shop owner’s offer of a demonstration. I had to see how these paints–practically works of art themselves–worked. “Are you artists?” the shopkeeper asked as my daughter tested out pens and I took a pause from grazing my fingers over everything in the store to watch her work. The knocked me outside the flow of typical shopping banter. I didn’t know what to say. We, my daughter and I, weren’t artists like the shopkeeper was an artist, but I wanted us to be. Yes and no felt like equally dishonest answers, but the yes inside of me thrummed more loudly. “Well, we make art every day. So, I guess we’re artists.” When, six months later I unwrapped a set of paints from my husband for my birthday, complete with water brushes and a ceramic dish and thick, pulpy paper, I felt like I’d been waiting for them my whole life.

Shortly after my birthday, I ordered a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I decided to buy this book. I certainly was not trying to become a painter. I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I’d been blogging sporadically for over ten years, and hacking away at a memoir for what felt like the same length of time though in reality it was only months. My best guess is that I hoped that the book would unlock in me the discipline and consistency to become a real writer–that is, a writer whose words people want to read. The Artist’s Way is structured as a twelve-week course. You read a chapter a week, work through exercises, and respond to prompts in a journal. You start writing morning pages every day on waking. You take yourself on weekly artists’ dates. Sometimes the work was incredible exciting. I could feel my mind expanding and my creativity pulsing in the center of my chest. Other times it felt like homework. By the time I reached the end of the book, the words were pouring out of me. I was also painting and drawing and dancing and singing and playing guitar, often with my daughter, but equally as often on my own, after she went to bed or while she lingered over dinner or played with her dad. The biggest change was that I no longer had any qualms about calling myself an artist. I figured out that it didn’t matter if anyone read my words. It didn’t matter if I never finished my book. What makes me a writer is the fact that I write. What makes me an artist is the act of sitting down and making art. Art is process of trying again and again to transform my experiences and the world around me into something lasting that can be experienced my someone other than me. All I had to do to be an artist was to show up and lay claim.

A few months after finishing up the Artist’s Way the afterglow wore off and the well of words dried up. I was going through something. Often, struggle and pain are what I write about write about, but this struggle wasn’t generative. Often, writing helps me process difficult emotions, but this time I wasn’t finding any answers on the page. Trying to write was like chasing the monkeys around in my mind. It was painful to see my neuroses and unresolved issues all splayed out on the page day after day. There was no clearing out, only adding to the noise. And then there as this: I didn’t trust myself to say what was true. So I stopped writing and got to work on healing instead. I’ll write about what I mean by “healing”–what I was healing from and how I did it–at some point but I’m not a wellness influencer yet and this post is about art, so for now we’re going to leave it at that. My blogs, Instagram captions, my many Google docs stood silent. My works in progress, my beautiful drafts, refused to budge. This time, I didn’t stop calling myself a writer, or an artist. Like a lot of people battling through pandemic-induced burnout, this is was a year about accepting and respecting my limitations. Taking vacation doesn’t make me any less of a lawyer, just like being done having babies doesn’t make me any less of a mom. Even people with dream jobs take vacations, sabbaticals, breaks. Artists aren’t machines. Our gifts don’t exist for us to churn out content on demand. We have to make art, like everything else, in a sustainable way if we want to do it for the long haul.

The result of the healing work I’ve done this year, which is still very much in process, is that my mind is quieter. Meditation and therapy and exercise work wonders; so does an SSRI. In this quieter phase, the words are not spinning out of my brain at the pace they once did. Where writing was a compulsion, it’s now a choice. If writing was emergency medicine, now it’s play. In the space that remains is a primal urge to record the world in a new way. In my work, I want to see more of the world and less of me in it. I want to never forget the things I am lucky enough to have seen. The curve of the angels wing. The angle of the downtown buildings in a 4 PM winter sheen. The depth of the evergreen against the powder blue brick of the abandoned church on Oak Street. The stark raving beauty of a dog running free on an abandoned beach. Every type of fruit cut cleanly in half. The gas station sign I saw some fifteen years ago and never got out of my head.

A few weeks ago, I pulled my paints out and haven’t been able to stop. I’m watching tutorials on YouTube and Instagram. I’m keeping a list of things I want to paint. I’m daydreaming about what I could do with better brushes, what could happen if I kept this up for a year. I fall asleep thinking about lines on the page. When I finish a picture, I’m giddy like a kid and want to show it off. I need someone to frame my work or hang it on the fridge for me, though, because I can’t do it myself. I went on a painting bender after Thanksgiving and wanted to share my work on Instagram, but when I went to post something stopped me. Shame, I think. Only a moment before, my paintings were beloved masterpieces. I couldn’t believe how much better I’d gotten in a year. But when I thought of sharing them with anyone else, they seemed painfully amateur. Clicking on a hashtag filled my screen with stunning images and suddenly I felt disappointed and embarrassed that I put so much time and excitement into a hobby that yields only mediocre results. I had to tell myself that the finished paintings were not the point. The point was how much I enjoyed making them. But also, I really liked the finished paintings. I had to remind myself of that.

I closed Instagram that day, actually deleted the app off my phone altogether, but I keep revisiting the idea of sharing my art. I know there’s something of value here. It’s not the finished work. It’s the idea that a mom can have a hobby that’s not exercise or drinking wine. It’s the idea that a lawyer can have a hobby that doesn’t come with a networking benefit. It’s the idea that person can try something new and be bad at it. It’s the idea that showing up makes you better. It’s the idea a serious adult has time to play. It’s the idea that the things that moved you as a child never stop moving you. It’s the idea that you can bring things you love back into your life. It’s the idea that there are things out there that can light you up and get you out of bed in the morning that aren’t drugs and don’t depend on other people and you might not even know about them yet. It’s the idea that you can give yourself beautiful things. It’s the idea that you can make a beautiful life.

Maybe being an artist is not about the art you make or about the process. Maybe it’s a way of seeing and being in the world. Maybe art is about how we live. Maybe it’s about love. Maybe our hobbies are not so low stakes after all.

Quarantine Diary Day 139: A Week Without Words

I quit reading last week. I gave it all up, or tried to anyway, fiction and fact, print and online, social media and serious journalism. Let me back up.

About a month ago I started working my way through The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s guide to fostering creativity. The book is structured as a twelve-week course with readings and writing exercises and other tasks to do each week. Last week, one of the assignments was a total ban on reading. Cameron calls the exercise reading deprivation, if that sounds harsh it’s because it is. Cameron is clear that her intent is not to provide any loopholes, even going as far as to suggest that people procrastinate or otherwise worm their way out of required reading for work and school.

The idea behind the challenge is that we need white space, a break from the constant consumption of content, to allow our own creativity room to flourish. Reading deprivation is the first element of The Artist’s Way that I haven’t been enthusiastic about. I had just started reading The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and had less than two weeks left on my library loan; if I didn’t finish on time I was going to have to put my Kindle into airplane mode. I was tempted to skip the challenge altogether–I am a lawyer for God’s sake, I can’t not read–but decided to give it an honest effort, mainly because Cameron all but promised a big payoff:

If we monitor the inflow and keep it to a minimum, we will be rewarded for our reading with embarrassing speed. Our reward will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely.

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

As a person who obsessively inhales information and readily (although embarrassedly) identifies as a “blocked creative” (or at least with the “blocked” part of that phrase), I knew I stood to benefit from dialing down the noise. I’ll admit that I didn’t comply with the letter or even the spirit of the assignment. At the outset, I decided I was still going to read to my daughter before bed every night and I was still going to read for work to the extent necessary to do my job. Even with those caveats, a lot of words fell right out of my life.

Here is list (incomplete because I’m probably forgetting something) of things I usually read on a daily basis that I gave up:

  • Poetry;
  • Morning news briefings from the New York Times;
  • My personal email (including informational emails from my kid’s school an day camp, the HOA, the church, social justice orgs, the running club, newsletters, and whatever other shit I forgot to unsubscribe from);
  • The paper newspaper (currently: The New York Times);
  • Tarot guidebooks;
  • Audiobooks that I listen to on my fake morning commute (currently: Daring Greatly and Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered);
  • Facebook posts;
  • Instagram posts;
  • Twitter;
  • Direct messages on FB, Instagram, and Twitter (lol no one DMs me on Twitter);
  • Articles people share on social media;
  • Articles my colleagues share at work;
  • Books I read over lunch (currently: the big antiracist guide);
  • Podcasts I listen to while running or on my fake evening commute;
  • Recipes;
  • Books I read to my daughter during or after dinner (currently: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire);
  • Books I read after I put my daughter to bed (currently: The Great Believers);
  • Books sitting on my nightstand that I keep starting and putting down because it is SAD (currently: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead); and
  • Self-help books I read before bed (currently: Boundaries and Protection by Pixie Lighthorse).

I missed each of these sources of information, entertainment, and distraction almost immediately. In their absence, I didn’t know what the fuck to do with my hands or eyes or mind, let alone all my newfound time! Cameron was right though. My imagination found ways to fill in the gaps. 

Here is list (incomplete because I’m probably forgetting something) of things I did last week instead of reading:

  • Moved pictures from four old phones to the cloud;
  • Found and looked at/watched old pics and videos of D from when she was a baby;
  • Cleaned out drawers;
  • Inexplicably listened to Whitney Houston;
  • Wrote;
  • Worked;
  • Walked;
  • Stared into space;
  • Talked to my husband;
  • Watched TV;
  • Looked at houses on Redfin (just the pictures!) (this was probably a cheat and I did it a lot);
  • Organized my Google Drive;
  • Called my sister;
  • Called my mom;
  • Played LEGO with D;
  • Organized a box of staples that had spilled everywhere;
  • Played ukulele;
  • Listened to music;
  • Ran
  • Called Dan;
  • Learned a new song on the guitar;
  • Pulled tarot cards;
  • Did writing exercises from The Artist’s Way;
  • Organized my nightstand;
  • Played Monopoly Deal with D;
  • Cooked food without a recipe;
  • Cleaned out the fridge;
  • Made chalk art on the sidewalk with D;
  • Sat outside with my neighbors;
  • Went on a date with my husband;
  • Meditated;
  • Looked at pictures of art online;
  • Laid out in the sun listening to music; and
  • Braided grass into wreaths and left them at the base of a tree.

My efforts to stick to even my modified version of the reading deprivation challenge were imperfect. I slipped. I read comments on this blog. I read the email from my daughter’s school district announcing the plan for returning to school in the fall. I checked Instagram and Facebook more times than I care to admit and and when I saw a loose FB acquaintance reference reporting on “off-world vehicles not made on this earth” I did some frantic Googling and binge-read this whole article alluding to the existence of U.F.O.s once to myself and then again out loud to my husband before I realized what I was doing. I texted.

Not reading was only inconvenient a handful of times. I hated seeing the newspaper go untouched day after day so that it was still perfectly folded in a neat little pile at the end of the week; it made me feel unproductive, wasteful, and out of touch. I worried I would miss some critical information about my daughter’s school by not reading the 22 page packet that accompanied the email from the district. Someone from the church dropped off two neon vinyl strips with velcro on the ends and said they were for (virtual) vacation bible school activity that week and neither of us had any idea what they were for since my daughter wasn’t actually going to vacation bible school and I wasn’t checking the daily emails.

In the end, I didn’t miss anything. A fresh paper came the next week and all the news was the same. My husband read the packet from the school. And on the last day of the reading deprivation challenge I drove by the church and saw a series of brightly loops making a chain across the gate in front of the courtyard with messages from the kids in my daughter’s sunday school class. Ah. So that’s what the strips were for.